A Viewing Guide for the Friends Newbie

8 minute read

Every Friday for four years, my friends and I would pop one bowl of popcorn and watch an episode of Friends from my “best of” DVD box set. The concept of binge watching had yet to be invented, so we consumed the show in small bites—two each week—and in a haphazard order (I calculated which season it was based on haircuts). If I wanted to know why Ross and Rachel were together one episode and apart the next, I had to go buy another set of DVDs or beg my friends to re-enact episodes.

But now that Friends is hitting Netflix on Jan. 1, no child will ever have to wonder whether Ross and Rachel really were “on a break.”

Anyone with the time should watch every episode of this show. Even if the laugh track feels dated and the jokes a little less edgy than Seinfeld, Friends is worth revisiting as a cultural artifact: Its final episode in 2004 was watched by 52.5 million people, a number that has yet to be topped by any show since. But for those who don’t have the time to watch 10 whole seasons and just want to skim, here are the character backgrounds and the episodes you ought to watch.

Who Are the Eponymous “Friends?”

Monica Geller (Courtney Cox): Ross’ sister, Phoebe’s old roommate, Chandler and Monica’s neighbor and Rachel’s best friend from high school, Monica was conceived as the lynchpin of the group. Though she’s a neat freak and a bit bossy, she acts as the de facto mom to the rest of the friends. At the beginning of the show, she takes Rachel in as her new roommate.

Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston): At the beginning of the show, Rachel runs away from her wedding in order to try to forge a life of her own. A bit of a spoiled brat, she moves in with Monica and takes a job as a waitress at Central Perk (the coffee shop where the group spends most of its time) though she aspires to work in fashion. Rachel dates Ross on-again and off-again throughout the entire series.

Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow): The oddball of the group, Phoebe is a professional masseuse and amateur musician. (Her claim to fame is the song “Smelly Cat.”) Though she has a bleak past—Phoebe was homeless after her father abandoned the family and her mother committed suicide—she is relentlessly optimistic. Phoebe and Monica used to live together, but Phoebe has moved out by the time the show starts.

Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry): Chandler first met Ross in college when the two were roommates. When he moved to New York, he became roommates with Joey across the hall from Monica and Phoebe. None of the friends know what Chandler does for a living—something with numbers, maybe? Scarred by his parents’ divorce, Chandler has major commitment issues. The self-described “funny one,” he cracks jokes and makes sarcastic observations whenever the friends are hanging out.

Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc): Though Joey isn’t the smartest of the gang—in fact, he’s incredibly dumb—he does do well with the ladies, wooing a new woman almost every episode. An aspiring actor, he relies on best friend and roommate Chandler financially until he gets his big break on a soap opera.

Ross Geller (David Schwimmer): Ross is probably the nerdiest of the group. A paleontologist, he obsesses over dinosaurs, grammar and documentaries. Yet since high school, Ross has had a crush on the popular Rachel (his sister’s best friend). But when Rachel reunites with the friends in the first episode, Ross’ life is a bit complicated: His pregnant wife has just left him for a woman. Ross and Rachel’s “will they or won’t they?” chemistry drives much of the show.

Who Are the Recurring Characters?

Gunther: Gunther works at Central Perk and has a not-so-secret crush on Rachel.

Richard: Dr. Richard Burke is a friend of Monica and Ross’ parents. He and Monica date seriously on-and-off throughout the series. Eventually their age difference causes problems in the relationship.

Janice: The friends are always running into Chandler’s ex with an unbearable voice and a penchant for yelling, “Oh. My. Gawd”

Mike: In the later seasons, Phoebe meets and dates Mike (played by Paul Rudd!), a corporate lawyer-turned-musician who falls for her quirks

Ursula: Ursula is Phoebe’s twin sister (also played by Kudrow) who may be even crazier than Phoebe. The two have a rocky relationship.

Carol: Carol is Ross’ lesbian ex-wife and the father of his child, Ben. Carol and her wife, Susan, share custody of Ben with Ross.

Frank Jr.: Phoebe eventually finds out that she has a half-brother. When he falls in love and marries his much older teacher, Phoebe acts as their surrogate.

Emily: Ross gets engaged to Emily, a British woman, after a very short courtship.

20 Great Episodes

The One With the Blackout (Season 1): When all of New York goes dark, the friends get to know each other a little better.

The One With the Poker (Season 1): The girls try to beat the boys at poker.

The One With the Prom Video (Season 2): The gang watches an old video of Rachel and Monica getting ready for prom and finds out romantic secrets about some of the friends’ pasts.

The One Where Ross Finds Out (Season 2): Ross realizes that Rachel used to like him back in the day, after all.

The One Where No One’s Ready (Season 3): Ross starts to lose it when everyone is late for his big event.

The One With the Football (Season 3): After the gang finds out Ross and Monica used to compete for the Geller Cup (a.k.a. a troll doll stapled to a 2×4) in a football game every Thanksgiving, they play each other in a game themselves.

The One With All the Embryos (Season 4): While Phoebe is examined for the implantation of embryos, Rachel and Monica compete against Joey and Chandler in a quiz game to see which pair knows the other better.

The One With Chandler in a Box (Season 4): Joey punishes Chandler for kissing his girlfriend by making him spend Thanksgiving in a box.

The One With Ross’ Wedding (Season 4): Rachel rushes to London to stop Ross’ wedding to Emily.

The One With All the Thanksgivings (Season 5): The friends share their worst Thanksgivings. We flashback to when the friends were in high school.

The One Where Everybody Finds Out (Season 5): Monica and Chandler go to extreme lengths to try to hide a secret.

The One in Las Vegas (Season 5): The friends head to Vegas and make some impulse decisions.

The One Where Ross Got High (Season 6): Chandler tries to ingratiate himself with Monica’s parents only to find out that they think he, not Ross, was the one smoking pot in their house during college.

The One With the Proposal (Season 6): Chandler pops the question.

The One With All the Cheesecakes (Season 7): Chandler and Rachel can’t stop eating the cheesecake that’s mistakenly delivered to their floor.

The One With Monica and Chandler’s Wedding (Season 7): Monica and Chandler get married with Joey officiating.

The One With the Rumor (Season 8): Brad Pitt guest stars as Ross’ high school friend who hates Rachel (note: Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were married at the time).

The One With the Male Nanny (Season 9): Freddie Prinze Jr. guest stars as a manny with a sensitive streak that babysits Emma.

The One With Princess Conseula (Season 10): Phoebe discovers that when you get married, you can change your name to anything.

The Last One (Season 10): By the time you reach the final episode, you should be crying that this amazing show is ending.

Bonus: The Thanksgiving Episodes

Every year, the Friends gang gathered together for Thanksgiving. Some of these episodes involved guest stars (hey, Brad Pitt), others troll trophies handed out to whoever won a football game. But the Thanksgiving episodes were wonderful because they often involved flashbacks to the friends’ high school and college years when Monica was fat, Rachel had yet to have her nose job and Ross and Chandler rocked ridiculous haircuts. Here they all are:

Season 1: The One Where Underdog Gets Away

Season 2: The One With the List

Season 3: The One With the Football

Season 4: The One With Chandler in a Box

Season 5: The One With All The Thanksgivings

Season 6: The One Where Ross Got High

Season 7: The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs

Season 8: The One With the Rumor

Season 9: The One With Rachel’s Other Sister

Season 10: The One With the Late Thanksgiving

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com