"Though promoted as sitcoms, (Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and Friends) were really commercials designed to promote the city as the rightful home of the elite. With the threat of class war vanquished and industry exported overseas, (the city was determined) to be the most effective device for inculcating the population with 'the Joneses' - the desire to live up to the standard set by the fashion, beauty, and luxury industries."
I'll circle back to the quote above (from "Seinfeld Syndrome" in The Psychic Soviet by Ian Svenonius) in a bit. When I asked for suggestions for this TV Proms series, a few people nominated this, "The One with the Prom Video", often voted the best Friends episode of them all.
It may certainly be that, but only the very end ventures anywhere near the focus of this series. And it's all just window dressing for the real story, i.e. Ross and Rachel's getting together. Very effective window dressing and all, but yeah, not much in the way of a "TV Prom" episode.
I trust you know the whole Friends set-up, so I'll dispense with any overview of the show. This was the 14th episode of the 2nd season, so as things stand after the opening credits end: 1) Ross loves Rachel, but she keeps discouraging him, 2) Chandler and Monica are not together, and 3) Joey and Chandler live together.
|That forms one of the ep's most enduring subplots: the bracelet buddies.|
|Joey gives Chandler a friendship bracelet, which he wears reluctantly. When a woman at Central Perk abandons her attempt to pick him up upon noticing it, Chandler goes on a tirade and is overheard by Joey.|
At times Friends's humor was a little broad for me. I watched it regularly enough in some capacity, never a diehard fan, but like a lot of people in America in the 90s, it was just part of the background. Later, I had some friends who were diehards, and I was able to appreciate the show through their eyes a bit more. Anyway, aspects of this bracelet buddies b-plot were like that for me, especially with Chandler's attempts to apologize.
Case in point: the "I am kneeling before you, holding two pillows, much as they did in biblical times" joke.
If this was Cheers (incidentally, this episode's director's alma mater) I probably wouldn't think twice about it. But here it seems a tad over-precious to me. As does everything Phoebe says, from "I'm ready for my penis now" - sounds a little edgy out of context, I know - to "See? He's her lobster" at episode's end.
All of which is to say, Friends is a fine enough show and all, but it never deeply resonated with me.
|People who hang these Moulin Rouge or old-liquor posters on the wall, too - ugh. It's announcing to the world you have no original taste. I realize this isn't the best showcase of it, but you know what I mean.|
Not being particularly vested in the characters, therefore, the whole Ross and Rachel dynamic is of only historical interest to me. They were no Sam and Diane. But they're a good generational marker. Depending on when you were born, no one would fault you for saying "Sam and Diane are okay, but they're no Ross and Rachel." You'd be very wrong, but hey, plenty of room in the pool.
|This is a great episode for them, though.|
Let's get to the prom video. When Ross and Monica's parents bring over a bag of Monica's old things, they find a VHS tape inside that was recorded the night of the prom. Ross doesn't want to watch it, for reasons soon to be apparent, but everyone else overrides him.
The main gag of the video is how the characters looked. Ross with his 'stache and perm:
|"Lookin' good, Mister Kot-ter!"|
|and a pre-nose-job Rachel and fat Monica.|
I hate fat suit humor. Why and how this sort of thing is not roundly condemned in the hyper-sensitive Offense Bowl of 2015 is beyond me. The nose job joke works because Jennifer Aniston is poking fun at her real-life self. Courtney Cox - who later joined the bafflingly abundant ranks of the Botox Lip / "Eye of the Beholder" people of the 21st century - was not, however, ever overweight. I get that we're poking fun at Monica, whose control freak hyper-perfectionist tendencies are the result of beating this fat beast from her past down to size, but there's a certain real-world cruelty I can never get past with fat suit-based humor.
I won't dwell on it, but this stuff never lands with me. So I won't spend any time on the various "hilarious" fat suit things that happen in this episode or the series in general. (Later, Monica actually gets a fat suit. I mean, really? Do you know anyone with a fat suit in their closet? Moreover, shouldn't we, like, care that this is just fat blackface?)
My grumpiness on this trope aside, the video is a real treat to watch. It fleshes out Monica's friendship with Rachel and of course gives great payoff for the whole Ross and Rachel drama.
|When it looks like Rachel's date won't show up -|
|Ross borrows Dad's tux and is going to swoop in to save the day. Alas, her date shows up at the last minute.|
|Ross emerges just in time to see the front door close, as the parents scramble to turn off the camera. Not in time to avoid capturing his heartbreak, though.|
Despite anything I may have written above, this is great TV right here. It's not much for the TV Prom angle, I grant you. But hey, love and one-sweet-dream-came-true and stuff.
Let's close this out with more Psychic Soviet. I love this damn book. I've referenced it in other posts, but for those who don't know, it's a collection of tongue-in-cheek essays written by Ian Svenonius, indie wunderkind and former maestro of The Makeup, in the style of a radical Marxist surveying Anglo-American culture of the 1990s. "Seinfeld Syndrome" looks at the "rehabilitation" of the American city via Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City, from its former role as the "paranoia of the compressed proletariat" to "a place desirable for white people to live (in an) amoral upper-class playground where no one need act responsibly or nicely, where sex is plentiful and always transmogrifying, owing to the self-replenishing flesh pool that every urban center offers up."
"The American city had been abandoned by the bourgeoisie as beyond repair, a social scapegoat and tawdry freakshow; now it was 'fun' and 'cool' again. This phenomenon, called 'Seinfeld Syndrome,' is a watershed of our time."
Amidst the sarcasm of Svenonius' book is a lot of relevant insight and historical context. This chapter, for example, compares what American 90s TV did to the Hausmannification of Paris: the city itself (under guise of "public works") was transformed into an extension of the state's authority. The landscape itself becomes the propaganda. And not just American 90s TV - New York itself underwent massive changes in that decade. Perhaps, tovarish, uncoincidentally.
"When NBC aired the lowbrow copy show Friends, the fate of the city was sealed, as a whole new strata of morons emigrated to its fabled dating pool. The city's new privileged inhabitants would wear their city's outlaw image as a badge of honor and even venerate it with fervor, fiercely proud of a history they had never experienced, let alone contributed to - like suburbanites living on a Civil War battlefield and boasting about Pickett's charge.
"The indigenous city people, who had survived urban blight, gangs, systemic unemployment, police brutality, the state-sponsored crack epidemic, and PCP, finally met their match with Seinfeld Syndrome. Ethnic cleansing would happen via eviction."
Remember when the Friends went to a Hootie and Blowfish concert? And one of them (I forget who - I think it was Monica) got a hickey backstage? Read that in context of the above. It's a scary world, man. Prom's just the beginning.