Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: In honor of the 25th anniversary of “Friends,” who is your favorite character on the show? Why?
For a TV critic with some, um, seniority, it is odd to go from covering Friends as a contemporary TV show to covering it as a nostalgia phenomenon. So my feelings about “Friends” characters have gone through an evolution. When the show started, I liked David Schwimmer’s Ross Geller the most. Hard to remember now, but he was the most established actor when the show started, particularly following a well-received guest role on “NYPD Blue,” and I felt his character on “Friends” was the most developed in the early days of the show.
Eventually, toward the end of the run, I came to like Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe more, because she seemed like the underdog of the crew — not much family, no real job, a desire to be an artist with none of the talent — and I always thought Kudrow was smart in how she played someone whose intelligence was, let’s say, unconventional.
But in watching the old episodes with my 15-year-old son more recently, I have embraced the idea that all the characters on “Friends” were kind of awful people in their own ways; self-centered and myopic in that way that young people of every generation often are. It’s part of what makes the spirit of the show resonate with young people of many different generations, I think. But it’s also what makes picking a favorite character decidedly more difficult, now that I’m old enough to be their exasperated parent. Or at least an older uncle.
Joey, to answer the question. Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc). I chose him because I love Matt’s charisma on screen and his off-kilter sense of humor. But truth be told, I’m no friend of “Friends”…. It never hooked me.
My favorite “Friends” character is Chandler Bing because he was smart, cute, and funny, and the way to my heart always involves my funny bone. To me, Matthew Perry’s timing and delivery were the sharpest of the group, and the way he delivered his “Could you BE any more…” lines always got a laugh. Perry made Chandler’s awkwardness with women endearing (and not creepy) and when he and Monica found their way to each other, it was a satisfying payoff. Perry became an actor who was usually worth watching, even when the show wasn’t great – lookin’ at you, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” I’m sad he didn’t become a go-to choice for feature film rom-coms as I thought that was a natural progression after “Friends” ended. I’ve watched the shows he’s done since “Friends,” which include “Go On,” an “Odd Couple” reboot, “Mr. Sunshine” and his arc on “The Good Fight.” My gut says Perry has another hit in him, it’s just become tougher to find in today’s crowded content universe.
My favorite “Friends” character are the chick and the duck because they were a great gag that was never overdone (helped by the fact that they completely disappeared after the sixth season, but at least we got Chick Jr. and Duck Jr. in the series finale). This is also where I reveal that my obsession with The Mighty Ducks is so out of control that I instinctively respond to anything with a duck. Plus, the chick grew up into a very loud rooster, which kicked off “Friends'” best episode, “The One with the Embryos.”
If you’re looking for a human, to be honest, I’ve never had a favorite among the six; I’ve always felt like they were all best/most enjoyable with one another or altogether (I also support Joey and Rachel, don’t @ me). But I’ll give a shout-out to my favorite non-Mike love interest, Kathy. (And no, I’m not just saying her because Paget Brewster is currently on a “Friends” binge.) Kathy was the first recurring paramour who felt like a person and wasn’t saddled with a gimmick (Richard was fine, but his whole thing was that he’s 21 years older than Monica and friends with Jack and Judy). Yes, she was Joey’s girlfriend whom Chandler had a debilitating crush on, but it all felt organic and earned. Kathy was sweet and cool and could give haircuts. You just wanted her to stick around. Her budding flirtmance with Chandler was adorable and bittersweet, and the show doesn’t get enough credit for how deftly it handled that love triangle while also delivering one of the best Thanksgiving episodes and the iconic line, “The meaning of the box is threefold.” The only bad thing about Kathy was how terribly that arc ended, with her cheating on Chandler with Nick (and his rock-hard pecs and his giant man nipples). Brewster said on the DVD that the “Friends” actresses asked for Kathy not to cheat on Chandler, but alas. We’ll always have The Velveteen Rabbit.
Anyone who answers any character other than Phoebe is a cop.
I don’t even have a second-place winner: Chandler Bing is far and away my favorite Friend. Ross is too whiny, Rachel too vain, Phoebe too flighty, Monica too tightly wound, and Joey honestly never did much for me. So I basically just watched the show for Matthew Perry’s character, with his spot-on delivery of self-deprecating hilarity. He not only raised sarcasm to an entirely new art form, his love stories were the best (Kathy!), which the show finally realized by matching him up with Monica in the later seasons. Maybe because I also tend to speak incessantly, churning out wisecrack after wisecrack — and they’re not all gonna be winners, god knows. But, like Chandler, I keep going, because that’s who I am: as the man himself put it, “I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable.” One of my favorite episodes was when Chandler is forced by the rest of the gang to stop making fun of them; he practically spontaneously combusts, because it’s so anti to his actual personality (although, to be fair, not being able to make fun of Ross’ new leather pants must have been a special kind of torture).
Look, there is an actual case for it being Julie (because, seriously, there was nothing wrong with her?!), but of the core characters, it has to be Chandler. He was funny, charming, kind, a tiny bit broken, and good lord, the Friends were so mean to him. They spent so many hours with him and didn’t know his job or that he didn’t wear glasses. Poor Chandler.
The monkey, duh. Sorry. Gotta stay on-brand.
My favorite character from “Friends” is Dr. Chris Turk from “Scrubs,” whose performance of Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison” dance remains my TV high water mark. I say he’s eligible for this poll because “Scrubs” spent a season airing right after “Friends,” except for all those nights when Jeff Zucker ordered “super-sized” episodes (back when it was still surprising for TV shows to run longer than 30 or 60 minutes) and “Scrubs” got bumped in the process.
But if you’re going to be a stickler and disqualify him, then my answer is Chandler, who was always the funniest one. Except for when Joey was. Or Phoebe. Or sometimes Monica. Basically, all of the Friends are great except for Ross, who is, was, and will always be The Worst.
The only “Friends” episode that I laugh at every time is the one where Ross gets his keyboard out and makes music. Therefore, the answer is Ross.
Listen, this is a very, very difficult choice for me, made slightly harder by the fact that you’ve asked for the best character and not the best performance. The best performance belongs to David Schwimmer, in part because of the tragicomic arc he’s able to guide Ross through — only an actor with Schwimmer’s talent, empathy, and earnestness could find honesty in moments like this and hilarity in exchanges like this. People may hate Ross, but they would’ve stopped watching “Friends” entirely without Schwimmer’s masterful efforts.
OK, so back to the best character debate. Well. I mean, instinctually, you want to say Chandler, but if anyone is going to bear the brunt of accusations like, “‘Friends’ doesn’t age well’,” then it’s the guy who spends an entire episode getting angry over people thinking he’s gay. I think the coolest answer is Phoebe, because her curiously distant nature makes her intriguing and unpredictable. It helps that Lisa Kudrow is, in fact, very cool and talented, but her character is almost the antithesis of “Friends” itself: Phoebe isn’t all warm and fuzzy and adorable; she’s the wild card, who you fall for during brief peeks behind the curtain.
With all that in mind, I’m going with Joey Tribbiani. Viewers instantly understood who Joey was: a warm-hearted charmer who could be friends with anyone. That made these five special, but over the years you got to see more and more sides of Joey. He had a complimentary arc to Rachel’s; where she discovered who she really was after bailing on expectations, he found his best self without running out on a wedding. Guidance from his friends helped him grow from a twenty-something who approached his profession the same way he did his romantic relationships — casually — into a professional actor who was ready to feel something real. Matt LeBlanc never got enough credit for playing a bad actor so well, and Joey never really got enough credit for being as good a supporting star (stealing scenes with just one line) or carrying a whole season on his back. So, with love to all, my favorite “Friends” character is Joey Tribbiani.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “Lodge 49” (two votes), “Great British Baking Show,” “Unbelievable,” “Undone” (one vote each, one abstention)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.