The One About Ross
WTF is Ross?
Ross is one of six main characters on Friends, the 10-season show about 20-something New Yorkers who like each other and spend all day sitting in a coffee shop.
Specifically, Ross is an academic who gets divorced a bunch of times and falls in love with another Friend called Rachel. Then, he smears lotion and talcum powder on his hands and slaps himself in the face.
Was Ross always the worst?
No. At the start of the series, Ross is arguably the protagonist, and the Friend we’re invited to relate to. He’s a grown-up nerd who has a second chance to impress the girl he had a crush on in high school, if only he can learn to have self-confidence. He’s also the main point of intersection in the Friend group – Monica is his sister, Chandler is his college roommate, and Rachel is the girl he loved in high school. The other two Friends, Phoebe and Joey, are added to the group by way of being roommates with Chandler and Monica, but Ross has the highest number of pre-existing relationships, as well as the ones that are most emotionally charged.
A lot of the serious, heart-warming story lines in the earliest seasons are also about Ross. He finds out that his ex-wife is pregnant and has to get used to the idea of being a father. He has to give his pet monkey up to a zoo. There’s tension about whether he’ll end up with Rachel.
Ross was originally presented as a pretty average, relatable guy (even if the show always kind of hated that he was an academic). He experienced ups and downs in his relationship with Rachel, but, within the bounds of sitcom reality, he handled them like an adult. He was, at the very least, capable of not being the worst person ever alive.
So what went wrong?
Midway through the series, the characters and the comedy both got a lot more broad. All of the Friends have always been types more than people but, in the back half of the series, each of them disappears inside one or two personality traits. Monica is too competitive and she has OCD, Joey is dumb and he likes to eat food, Rachel is shallow, Phoebe is weird – Ross and Chandler reverse their roles within the group. Chandler, who’s been kind of a clown (although a witty, self-deprecating one) becomes the normal, relatable guy, and Ross becomes the clown instead.
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment that the writers said, “Hey, let’s make David Schwimmer our physical comedy guy,” but it may have happened midway through season five. In an episode called “The One With All the Resolutions,” there’s a story line where Ross makes a new year’s resolution to try new things, which somehow results in him wearing leather pants that get stuck to his legs when he uses the bathroom at his date’s house. At that point, he calls Joey, who gives him dumb advice, and he ends up putting lotion and talcum powder on his legs and hands, creating a gross white paste. Then he tries to pull his pants up again and slaps himself in the forehead.
It’s a funny moment (or, at least, I remember thinking it was funny the first time I saw it), but it’s also a warning about how the show’s going to be for the next four and a half years.
Later story lines involve Ross making a fake version of his son out of old Halloween decorations, because he doesn’t want to help his sister pack, and Ross dressing up as a big armadillo, because he’s trying to explain Chanukah.
Meanwhile, Chandler starts getting emotionally mature, heart-warming story lines about his friendship with Joey and his changing relationship with Monica, including their marriage and attempts to have children. That’s not necessarily bad in itself, but it means you’re now watching a show where the primary comedy is based on really loud, broad humour, rather than wry observations.
The thing with Ross and Rachel
The thing with Ross and Rachel is also kind of a warning about how the series is going to be.
Friends has a really awkward relationship with homosexuality – although the gay jokes were progressive for their time, they haven’t aged well – but it has an equally awkward relationship with heterosexuality. According to the pattern laid down by Friends (and laid down first through Ross and Rachel) heterosexual relationships are a continuous cycle in which men do something to hurt the feelings of women, women punish men by completely freezing them out and refusing to even speak to them, and then men beg for forgiveness while calling themselves stupid and sacrificing everything else that matters to them in order to save the relationship. Women are also tapped into a hive mind that tells them how relationships should be, whereas men have to guess and check all the time to see if they’re right.
It’s a horrible way for two people of any gender to relate to each other.
In Ross and Rachel’s case, it becomes clear pretty soon that they’re not a good couple. He makes her sad all the time, and she vindictively destroys every relationship he has that’s not with her. For some reason, though, they won’t leave each other alone, and the show seems to want us to think it’s romantic when they get back together in the series finale.
The thing with anti-intellectualism
When Friends was originally on, I remember hearing people complain about this, and I didn’t notice until I re-watched the show, but, yeah – Friends thinks it’s bad to be too smart.
We’re invited to laugh at Phoebe and Joey for being weird and dumb, but we’re also invited to like them. Friends spends a lot of time making fun of Ross for being smart, for having a doctorate in palaeontology, and for thinking that his achievements can be meaningful. Whereas the Friends usually support each other when one of them enjoys a small success, they mostly just make fun of Ross when he tries to tell them about what’s happening in his job at the museum or, later, the university.
We’re also invited to side with Phoebe when she tells Ross that she doesn’t believe in gravity or evolution, because Ross is annoying and pedantic about it, even though he’s right.
The characters who seem to have the “right” amount of intelligence are Chandler and Monica, who aren’t dumb or weird like Joey and Phoebe, but also aren’t all that interested in learning things.
Why is this all Ross’ fault?
Because Ross is the worst. By the end of the series, he’s so annoying that I can hardly even look at him.
The tonal shift that makes Ross Ross is the same tonal shift that makes the series harder to enjoy as it moves into its second half. The characters are meaner to each other, they’re broader, the comedic situations get a lot goofier, more physical, and harder to believe, the show starts to develop a pattern of presenting unhealthy relationships as romantic, and it doesn’t want to seem too smart.