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Friends: The Complete Series(TV) (1994-2004)
Friends is an US sitcom about six friends struggling to survive on their own in Manhattan. In each episode, they find the companionship, comfort and support from each other to be the perfect solutions to the pressures of everyday life.
For more about Friends: The Complete Series and the Friends: The Complete Series Blu-ray release, see Friends: The Complete Series Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on November 14, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer
Directors: Gary Halvorson, Kevin Bright, Michael Lembeck, James Burrows, Gail Mancuso, Peter Bonerz
» See full cast & crew
Friends: The Complete Series Blu-ray Review
A problematic AV presentation complicates Must See TV's transition to Must See BD...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, November 14, 2012
Ten years, 236 episodes, 63 Primetime Emmy nods, a string of coveted comedy awards, a sizable cultural impact, ratings that actually increased over the show's ten-season run, a series finale that drew over fifty-million viewers, and an ever-rabid fanbase that continues to expand thanks to syndication and the next generation of home video releases. Friends didn't just leave a mark on television history, it left a crater. It isn't just a cult favorite either. It stands among a very select few as one of the most influential and beloved television comedies of all time. A true sitcom standard; no small feat considering its proud lineage and relatively recent tenure on the broadcast throne. It almost goes without saying then that the show's 21-disc Blu-ray debut would be burdened with enormous fan expectation.
Warner Bros. has seemingly tackled those expectations head on, remastering each episode by going back to the original 35mm film negatives. Unfortunately, the product of those efforts isn't the revelation most Friends fanatics have been hoping for. The resulting video presentation is very good but falls short of greatness, the series' audio is delivered via a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, and the set's special features amount to little more than ports of the long-outmoded DVD seasons. Even the 21st disc, which touts several new and exclusive special features, can be exhausted in two-and-a-half hours. Worse, perhaps, is the absence of the DVD edition's extended episodes; a sticking point that has already sent many a devotee into a tailspin. To them, any half-hearted explanation would merely be seen as an excuse, something Warner would have been wise to anticipate and address with a brief on-screen message at the open of each season (e.g. the short but succinct note from Universal that appears when you pop in any disc of Battlestar Galactica). Make no mistake, criticism is sure to abound.
The victim -- yes, more vocal detractors are at this moment deploying such hyperbolic language -- isn't the consumer or the fan. If anything, it's Friends. This is not the definitive box set many have been imagining since its announcement, nor is it everything it could be. There will be some who refuse to revisit the series on Blu-ray out of principle and others who will convince themselves that lossless audio would somehow make the show funnier than it already is. Still others will dismiss the broadcast versions of the episodes entirely, particularly if they're well acquainted with the extra jokes and gags from the DVD seasons' extended episodes. Broadcast or extended, though, Friends remains funny. Hilarious even, if you aren't harboring a late '90s grudge or any lingering animosity toward Matthew Perry. (An entire camp of TV junkies despise the show all because of poor Chandler. Baffling. He's my favorite Central Perker.) Some episodes are sharper than others, sure. The same could be said of some seasons. Even at its lowest points, though, Friends entertains.
And it wasn't just dumb luck, a coveted Thursday night time slot, or even the show's tireless audience. There's a more fundamental reason -- several really, but we'll go with just one -- that NBC's wildly successful sitcom-of-sitcoms survived and thrived for ten fruitful years; that it went on to generate tremendous DVD sales; that it will continue to live out a long and largely happy life on Blu-ray and beyond. And it isn't limited to the cast, the writers, the now-classic episodes or the conversational hilarity that ensued. Most everyone knows a Ross. A Rachel. A Ross who secretly loves a Rachel. A hyper-competitive but ever-reliable Monica. A dim-witted but lovable Joey. A quirky but compassionate Phoebe. A snarky but good-natured Chandler. Like other NBC sitcom greats -- Family Ties, Sanford and Son, Night Court, Cheers, The Cosby Show and Seinfeld, among others -- Friends assembled a lineup of six pop culture-weened modern American archetypes, forged inseparable bonds between them, and turned the whole gang loose on a quaintly romanticized Manhattan, where apartments were narrowly affordable and wonderfully spacious, jobs were easy to come by, crazy characters could pop up for a laugh then disappear for weeks on end, and disastrous relationships came to an end rather amicably.
So no, the new Complete Series box set isn't the definitive Friends compendium the more ravenous fans among you have been dreaming of since Blu-ray got off the ground. It isn't perfect, untoppable or inexhaustible either, and there's plenty of room for expansion and improvement. Be that as it may, it looks better than any series release thus far. It even sounds better, lossy be damned. Factor in its semi-generous bonus disc and cumbersome but classy packaging, and the 21-disc set pushes north of solid and comes to a rest just shy of enticing. Does that mean anyone should avoid it? Frankly, no. Tis the season to chuck frugal out the window, hunt for online deals, and buy your dearest friends -- the Rosses, the Rachels, the Monicas, the Joeys, the Phoebes and the Chandlers in your life -- a box set they might hesitate to buy for themselves. Or maybe you and your special someone are that Ross or Rachel. Buy in, set aside a few weeks to make your way through the series, and reconnect with some old sitcom friends.
A note from executive producers Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane:
We survived our missteps, and luck was with us at every turn. Okay, not just luck. We had a genius room full of writers who were hilarious even at their most sleep-deprived, a remarkable crew, and a stellar lineup of directors beginning with the legendary-for-good-reason James Burrows. On a personal note, there are two people who we never have the opportunity to acknowledge enough. Michael Skloff, for his unforgettable theme song and the most indelible five hand claps in television history. And Jeffrey Klarik, whose brilliant and uncredited dialogue, jokes and story ideas can be found everywhere from the pilot to the series finale. Friends wouldn't be Friends without them.
More than anything, we were blessed with an audience of unparalleled fervor, following us down whatever road we took the show, willing to wait a decade for Ross and Rachel to finally get together for good. (Too late for "spoiler alert"?) And now, astonishingly, we find that there's a new audience for the show. Kids who weren't even born when we said our last goodbyes to Central Perk are actually discovering "Smelly Cat" and Janice's laugh for the first time. We're thrilled that there is this new, vivid Blu-ray version of the show for them to see. The chick and the duck have never looked so feathery. Enjoy!"
A season-by-season breakdown of all your favorite Friends episodes:
Friends: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Video Quality
Friends: The Complete Series is presented via a 1.78:1 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer; one created by going back to the original 35mm film elements and remastering each season from the ground up. The results, though, vary rather dramatically and give way to a host of minor but, when heaped one atop another, compounding issues. First, let's deal with the original 35mm negatives and the series' original photography. Softness abounds, grain can be unwieldy, and detail is only as revealing as the episodes allow. Friends is classic catalog television, pure and simple. Even in the mid-to-late '90s, the thought of high definition TVs, much less one in every family room, was something of a pipe dream; certainly nothing executive producers felt the need to account for when it came to squeezing the most out of their budgets. Like most shows, it was shot for 1.33:1 standard definition mass consumption and DVD-level scrutiny, nothing more. ("The Pilot" is an even bigger mess. Don't panic.) Remaster or no, Warner Bros. can't turn water into wine, and I have no intention of docking the presentation for its inherited shortcomings.
Other more disconcerting problems arise as the series progresses, the worst of which plague the third, fourth and fifth seasons. The majority of these problems could have been addressed with some tweaking, especially since, as it stands, "tweaking" is exactly what caused them to manifest in the first place. Over the course of the show's ten seasons, color and contrast run the gamut (from pleasant and natural to dull and yellowed, to bright and vivid, to overbearing, then steadily back to natural), fleshtones are sometimes muddy or over-saturated, primaries are problematic early on and too vibrant on occasion as the series nears its end, crush hinders shadow detail as black levels bottom out, and intermittent compression artifacts, faint and fleeting as they are, pop up every now and again. Obvious noise reduction is also in play. There are scenes and entire episodes where it's applied with such an uncharacteristically heavy hand that it wreaks havoc on midrange shots and numerous closeups. Other digital techniques have been used to normalize and stabilize aspects of the series' 236-episode photography too; just none that lead to nearly as many mishaps.
All that being said, I'll be the first to admit -- and celebrate -- the fact that Friends has never looked better than it does here. Colors may be uneven when accelerating from season to season, but they're also lovely and satisfying overall, particularly in later seasons as the series barrels into the 21st century. Contrast becomes more consistent too, as does delineation and detail. In early seasons, when edge definition and fine textures deliver, it's in spite of everything that's working against them. Later, edges and fine textures deliver in conjunction with the rest of the image, as clarity becomes more generous and impresses accordingly. The series' grain, meanwhile, ranges from mild to heavy, with stops at muddled and soupy in between, but never becomes a sizable distraction. Removing it completely would have been detrimental, so kudos to Warner for sticking with their commitment to the 35mm remaster. (Now if only the noise reduction applied to the image wasn't so unforgiving.) The technical encode is also proficient (barring the aforementioned artifacting, which is thankfully in very short supply). All 200+ episodes are given ample room to breathe and I have yet to notice much, if anything, in the way of substantial banding, aliasing, shimmering, flickering, ringing or film-element damage.
Perfect? No. Terrific? Still cold. Great? Getting a wee bit warmer. Good? Worth the cost of admission? There you go. Friends wasn't primed to produce a knockout Blu-ray, and yet its video presentation is arguably the highlight of the set. How's that for a conundrum? In the end, reasonable fans will be pleased, videophiles will grumble, some will think I'm being far too kind, and still others will think it all looks better than reviewers are giving it credit for.
Friends: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Complete Series doesn't include any lossless audio option, putting all of its faith in a solid but by no means ideal 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Just don't rush to jump to any conclusion. It isn't the track's lossy nature that spoils things. I'll even go so far to say a lossless mix wouldn't have improved the discernible quality of the ensuing sonics all that much. (Key word: discernible.) No, the real problem here is that the show's unexpectedly full and energetic sound design could have used further remastering and adjustment, as several lingering issues bring it down half a notch. While matters indeed improve over the course of Friends' ten seasons, everything from air hiss to distortion, errant noise and other flare-ups interfere with dialogue, effects and live studio audience outbursts; things that could have been eliminated or at least minimized had the audio been given more attention.
That doesn't mean the Dolby Digital track is a misfire or a loss. Far from it. Distractions creep in, sure, but the finer qualities of the mix shouldn't be so readily dismissed. Voices are largely bright, clear and intelligible, prioritization is savvy, LFE output is decidedly decent (albeit rarely pushed to any extreme), the rear speakers are quite active, and dynamics get the job done. Music and ambience are better than average too, pans and directionality were more satisfying than I anticipated, and I was continually surprised by the relative immersiveness of the otherwise stock sitcom soundfield. There's still a general thinness inherent to most episodes, the studio audience laughter often sounds canned, and further remastering work could have possibly brought earlier seasons more in line with later seasons. But as catalog television goes, it could have been a lot worse.
Friends: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Friends: The Complete Series comes packaged in a well-crafted black box (11½ x 8 x 2) with a lenticular cover and hidden magnetic clasp. Inside is a 34-page booklet with a season by season breakdown of the episodes available (for quick reference when trying to find your favorite Friends outing). Beneath that is a sturdy 21-disc rectangular book-style case (11 x 6¾ x 1¼) with yet another concealed magnetic clasp, six heavy cardboard pages with two disc sleeves on each side of each page, and 21 Blu-ray discs (two for each season and one bonus disc). Removing the discs can be a bit tricky -- you have to slightly press against the back of a page to slide a disc out -- and caution and care are required to prevent damaging the pages. The discs seem safe enough (the sleeves are glossy, the pages are glossy, and the chances of scratching anything are slim to none), but even small finger indentations would have made removing discs that much easier. Either way, high marks on the packaging.
I can't say the same for the special features themselves. The vast majority of the supplements on tap have been ported over from the series' DVD releases and generally amount to three or four audio commentaries per season (29 in total) and a small selection of throwaway extras presented in standard definition. (Three DVD documentaries steal the supplemental show.) The box set also touts more than four hours of new extras, but that's where things go from underwhelming to strange. Unless I'm missing something, there are just under two-and-a-half hours of new and/or exclusive special features -- not four -- and none of the main cast members show up in any of the set's new high definition retrospective documentaries. Worse perhaps is the fact that there are several notable absences, chief among them Season Two's commentary tracks and, more notably, the bulk of the series' extended episodes. Even if it was impossible or cost prohibitive to remaster and/or reassemble the extended episodes, it would have been nice to have them as standard definition extras (a la Season Seven's four super-sized episodes) or, at the very least, to have all the additional bits and pieces rounded up and delivered as deleted scenes.
In the end, the 21-disc box set's supplemental package may boast twenty hours of extras, but for a 236-episode complete collection of a classic television series, that's not a whole lot.
The Complete First Season: Discs 1-2
The Complete Second Season: Discs 3-4
The Complete Third Season: Discs 5-6
The Complete Fourth Season: Discs 7-8
The Complete Fifth Season: Discs 9-10
The Complete Sixth Season: Discs 11-12
The Complete Seventh Season: Discs 13-14
The Complete Eighth Season: Discs 15-16
The Complete Ninth Season: Discs 17-18
The Complete Tenth Season: Discs 19-20
Additional Bonus Features: Disc 21
Friends: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Friends: The Complete Series has been a long time coming. Fans have been chomping at the bit for its release, Warner Bros. saw fit to go back to the original 35mm negatives to give the show a proper high definition debut, and several hours of new features await those who've been with the series since the beginning. And the resulting 21-disc box set delivers... and falls short. Its remastered 1.78:1 video presentation, imperfect as it may be, gives each season a fitting upgrade, its Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is solid but less than remarkable, and its supplemental package underwhelms despite boasting some twenty hours of special features including three new HD retrospective documentaries. Still, The Complete Series box set will make for a great holiday gift for any friend who can't get enough Friends.
Friends: Other Seasons
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