Ten years. 236 episodes. A massive cultural phenomenon. And yet, when it first premiered in 1994, nobody knew what 'Friends' was going to become. At the time, it was just another new hopeful. Looking back on it now, the first season of 'Friends' is good, not entirely remarkable, but does a great job of setting up the characters and situations that would turn the series into a blockbuster over the course of its run.
As the show begins, Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), runs out on her dream wedding because she's not really in love. She bumps into her old high school chum Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), Monica's brother Ross (David Schwimmer), and their friends Joey, Chandler, and Phoebe (Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and Lisa Kudrow, respectively). Monica agrees to let Rachel live with her, and thus begins the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the group.
It's interesting to watch the first season of 'Friends' again, having just watched the entire series for my complete series set review. Once you get past the mid-'90s fashions, now looking as out of date as mid-'80s fashion used to, the first thing that will hit you is how well established each character is. Each one has their own place within the group, their own personalities, and their own internal lives. While they grow and change over the course of the show, the baseline we get here is a solid foundation that the writers never stray from.
Also, so many elements of continuity are established in the first season. Chandler and Joey's foosball table makes its first appearance here, as well as Chandler's aversion to Thanksgivings, Phoebe's guitar playing, and much more. 'Friends' was one of the first sitcoms to maintain long running continuity, and it's interesting to see how much the writers set up from the very start.
It’s also worth noting that at the same time Rachel goes through her wedding crisis, Ross' marriage ends when his wife, Carol (Jane Sibbett, although for her first appearance she's played by Anita Barone), announces that she is gay. She then reveals that she is also pregnant with Ross' child. Ben would be the first of many 'Friends' babies, and became such an established part of the show that it's hard to imagine a time where he wasn't present. When Ross inadvertently learns that he's having a boy in "The One With The Dozen Lasagnas", Schwimmer's reaction feels genuine and seeing that scene knowing where his life goes by the end of the series is quite a revelation.
Season one also gives us Chandler at his most caustic and funny. For whatever reason, over the course of the series, he went from being genuinely funny to the guy who thinks he's funny. I always preferred genuinely funny Chandler, and he's in full swing here. They also introduce his mother, played by Morgan Fairchild, who would show up many more times throughout the run of the show.
A few oddities also pop up, like Marcel, Ross' pet capuchin monkey. Usually things like pregnancies and exotic pets are the last gasp of a dying show, but somehow the 'Friends' team make it work their first season out. There are plenty of classic episodes here, from "The One With The Thumb" to "The One With All The Poker" and the first of many season-ending cliffhangers, "The One Where Rachel Finds Out".
While 'Friends' would hit bigger heights in other seasons, the basic DNA and personality of the show is already well established in this first season. If you're unwilling to spring for the complete set, this is a natural starting point for the individual seasons, and unlike many TV first seasons, still holds up.
Warner Bros. presents 'Friends: The Complete First Season" in AVC-encoded, 1080p, 1.78:1 transfers. As has been previously noted, these widescreen presentations do not preserve the original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1. However, almost all of 'Friends' was shot on film (until season ten when the show switched to HD cameras), and so what we get here isn't a chopped version, but rather an expanded image. Of course, the episodes were composed to fit into a 4x3 frame, meaning that opening the mattes on the sides mainly introduces empty space. This was likely done to assuage the concerns of casual viewers, who might complain about windowboxing. Ultimately, this is a livable change, with the expanded framing making no impact, negative or positive, on the comedy itself.
As for the first season, 'The Pilot' (also known as 'The One where Rachel Moves In') hasn't aged well, with colors that are amazingly washed out, making the cast look like gamers who live in their parents' basements. Detail levels are quite poor in this episode, which also features some minor noise issues. Black crush is a concern in Joey's shirt and Joey and Monica's hair. Thankfully, the rest of the show looks much better than the premiere/test episode. Skin tones become a natural, warm hue, with only the rarest bit of paleness. Noise is reduced significantly, there are far less softer shots, and the amount of texture in clothing increases exponentially. The picture brightness and clarity improves as the first season rolls on, and while there's the occasional soft shot (not counting SD establishing shots, like at the hockey game), for the most part the picture remains balanced and even. There's no wobble to the picture, no artifacting, and a constant level of grain that only has the occasional hiccup, with a minor freeze every now and again. There are a couple of problems with the picture that remain constant in this first season, such as bright red clothing (there are more than a few red sweaters) that have an awkward light fuzzy bleed to them, or the way Phoebe's hair isn't always finely defined, with the occasional appearance of some DNR in the strands closer to her body.
In what was likely a space-saving measure (each season fits on two discs), Warner Bros. only offers lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 sound for every season of 'Friends'. These soundtracks show their age, with various issues such as hiss, a canned aspect to the laughter (the show was recorded live in front of an audience, but reactions were often edited in post to get the best reactions or cut down over-enthusiastic responses) audio dips and drops, and more.
The good news is that for the most part the issues are intermittent, and dialogue, the most important element of a series like this, comes through loud and clear. Dynamics are rarely pushed, but there's no distortion. The audience ably fills the rear speakers, and there's a decent amount of directionality, depending on the content of the episode in question. This season has the weakest audio of the series, with a flatness to the mix that makes it feel dull.
It all starts here. The first season of 'Friends' shows that all the elements of the series' success was in place from day one. The characters feel well developed, the jokes are strong, and if it weren't for the early '90s clothes and hair, you might reasonably confuse this with a later season. This season set, taken out of the complete series set, has video that is a notable improvement over the DVDs, although the audio isn't much to write home about. There are very few extras, and even less that are substantial. Still, if you want 'Friends' in HD, but you're not willing to shell out for the complete series, this is the natural starting point.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.