Since its mid-aughts finale, we’ve been on an unofficial break with Friends. But now, in honor of HBO Max’s highly-anticipated Friends reunion—which is bringing together the beloved sixsome on that iconic orange couch for the first time in 17 years—Marie Claire is celebrating, criticizing, and obsessing over the show that was always there for us.
There are some inarguable facts about Friends: the apartments were unrealistically large; Emily deserved better; the lack of diversity was unnerving; and the fashion was on point. But one of my particular opinions (which is sure to lose me some friends)? The Joey-and-Rachel storyline wasn’t bad. In fact, it tracked, and I wholeheartedly stand by it.
Let’s get something out of the way: The show wants us to root for Ross. They set him up as the underdog who has been obsessing over the popular girl since their teenage days. The will-they-wont-they of it all and the “we were on a break” arcs propel seasons of the sitcom and act as one of the show’s main emotional heartbeats. Ross and Rachel’s chemistry is undeniably palpable (which we now know was probably due to Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer liking each other in real life). There is something impossibly romantic about him loving her all these years and her finally seeing the potential in her best friend’s nerdy older brother.
But Ross and Rachel aren’t a good couple. If they were your real life friends, you’d call them toxic behind their backs. He’s jealous, they have very little in common—other than their friends—and he constantly wants Rachel to fit into the perfect version of her that he created when they were just high schoolers—career aspirations be damned. Fans have, in hindsight, collectively decided that Ross is deeply problematic, but still, we cheered when Rachel got off the plane for him. Because he’s her lobster.
Which is why it’s jarring when the show makes a left turn into Joey territory. The writers first dipped their toes into the Joey-Rachel storyline in season 8, aptly titled, “The One Where Joey Dates Rachel.” He takes Rachel out because she misses the romance of dating. It’s very sweet and kicks off a series of episodes where Joey must grapple with his growing feelings for one of his best friends who also happens to be pregnant with his other best friend’s baby. It gives Joey’s character a chance to grow and mature in a way he hadn’t in his other relationships. But ultimately, Rachel doesn’t feel the same—and it’s fair. Things with her and Ross and their status as soon-to-be co-parents is all too confusing. The timing just wasn’t right. But by the end of season 9, Rachel begins to have feelings for Joey, but he’s in a relationship with Charlie, who Ross coincidentally is crushing on. They all simultaneously realize they are with the wrong people and swap around giving Joey and Rachel the chance to test the dating waters.
That brings us to season 10, widely believed to be the show’s worst. But I don’t think it’s right to fully discredit the Joey-Rachel arc because of the larger faults and lazy writing of the overall season. It makes sense that Rachel would develop a thing for Joey. They’ve spent years (happily!) living together; he’s supported her through pregnancy and as a new mom in ways that Ross was never able to; he’s charming and good looking; and they have a much similar outlook on life.
I think the real problem is how the writers tackled the storyline. After investing two to three seasons into setting up the Joey-Rachel arc, they let it peter out in two to three episodes. Rachel even jokes at one point that she dated Joey for all of a week, ending things quickly because there was no chemistry. The show creators—who stand by the controversial decision to have the characters date despite the cast not loving the idea—said they always knew Joey and Rachel would be doomed. “That happens in life,” David Crane previously told Radio Times. “There is the relationship that shouldn’t be. Even though you love someone, that’s not who you’re going to be with.” He continued, saying it was really only worth it because “it took Joey to a more emotional place, and let Matt [LeBlanc] play colors that he hadn’t gotten to play yet in the series.” And because of a shortened final season, the writers had to drop Joey to go careening toward their true end game: Ross.
But had the show been able to invest at least a whole season into their relationship then perhaps all the fans could’ve come around to the same conclusion I have about the storyline: that while Ross was too busy pining over the Rachel of his past, Joey falls in love with the woman Rachel is today—in all her messy, ambitious, beautiful glory.
But Rachel ended up with Ross, so this is all really just a moo point.