Why critical Friends director is wrong about Helen Baxendale's Emily
The recent comments by sitcom director James Burrows totally miss the point.
Emily Waltham has long been a divisive figure among Friends fans, and it now appears that was the case behind-the-scenes of the popular sitcom as well.
In his new memoir, recurring Friends director James Burrows had some choice words for Helen Baxendale, who played the role, describing her as "nice, but not particularly funny". He goes so far as to say that, if not for a hectic shooting schedule, the team would likely have recast her – and what a terrible mistake that would have been!
Baxendale certainly had a different energy to the rest of the Friends cast. Four seasons in, the core group were well-adjusted to the rhythm of an American studio sitcom, while their new recruit had a largely dramatic background – barring some comedic beats in the first run of Cold Feet.
Therefore, it's unsurprising that she wasn't quite as comfortable with the unnatural style of delivery that a show like Friends demands (if you don't know what I mean, check out any compilation of the show with its laugh track edited out). But to suggest that she wasn't funny at all is a gross overstatement.
Prior to the events of the wedding – after which Emily was depicted (whether fairly or unfairly) in an overtly villainous light – she was a charming addition to the show. The character comes out swinging with a fiery tirade at Rachel, having been strip-searched, soaked to the bone and "run down by one of your wiener cars" during a calamitous trip to the Big Apple.
She displays a similar ferocity when helping Ross identify the weaknesses of his rugby opponents, but a softer, more sympathetic side to the character also soon emerges. Her earnest joy at seeing "a deer just outside eating fruit from the orchard" and the giddiness with which she accepts an admittedly hasty proposal are indications of the true Emily.
If she's comparatively lacking in comedic punch, I'd argue that's less to do with Baxendale's performance and more so with the very design of the character. She was clearly intended to be a wholesome, sensible and cultured figure, and in that respect can be considered a much better match for Ross than Rachel ever was.
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Remember, he too was often branded boring by his friends, preferring scholarly pursuits to wild antics. His zanier moments stem largely from failed attempts to be cool (e.g. the leather pants) and various mental health crises, triggered by his failed marriages or difficulty adapting to a change of circumstance ("I'm fine!").
So the question becomes: does every character need to be laugh-a-minute in a show like Friends? Emily might have had a lower hit rate than the likes of Chandler or Phoebe, but she was nevertheless compelling and believable as a partner to Ross. And in a recurring, supporting role (akin to Paul Rudd's Mike) that would have been enough to justify her presence on a long-term basis.
Alas, that was not to be. It's unknown whether Emily could have stuck around longer had it not been for the one-two punch of audience dissatisfaction and Baxendale's real-life pregnancy, but her outsider status actually benefits the exit she received.
The very fact that the Friends cast could run rings around her – whether down to more generous scripting or sharper comic timing – conjures a palpable sense of distance between Emily and the main group. I'm sure many of us can relate to feeling unwelcome or intimidated by an established clique, which is clearly what's going on here.
It means that, when everything comes crashing down in spectacular fashion, there's a heightened sense of isolation for Emily. Think about it: after Ross says the wrong name at their wedding, five close friends are quick to rally around him. Who is there for the blushing bride? A curmudgeonly father and an aloof stepmother.
Besides Ross, no effort is made by any of the 'Friends' to reach out to Emily, suggesting that they never held her in much regard. Sure, she was only on the scene for about six weeks, but you'd think at least Monica – her would-be sister-in-law – might have tried to check in at some point.
Emily's subsequent reluctance to relocate to New York City and deep mistrust of Ross and Rachel is hardly surprising or unreasonable in this light – particularly after seeing the two of them swanning off on what would have been a honeymoon.
We can argue all day over whether the character's eventual demands crossed a line, but to disparage Baxendale's performance would do the very same. She did exactly what she was hired to do! That is, portray a grounded, sophisticated love interest, who was destined to never quite assimilate into the Central Perk crew.
When it comes to Burrows's comments on Baxendale, it should be noted that of the 15 episodes of Friends he directed, only one featured Emily in any capacity (season 4 episode 15: The One with All the Rugby). Therefore, his experience working with the British talent likely wasn't as comprehensive as some fans might think.
That's to say nothing of the questionable practice of criticising your former colleagues in a highly public sphere. Even Emily wouldn't have done that.
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