Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Problem of Ross & Rachel: Why It Still Doesn't Work

Julia Roberts shows up in Friends, Season 2
I recently rewatched most seasons of Friends (with self-censoring). It is a remarkably well-written and well-cast show, especially for its time period, 1994-2004. Friends slightly precedes the years when television became the massive money-maker it is now. This may sound odd to the younger generation, but when Michael J. Fox (intelligently) returned to television to star in Spin City in 1996, his move was still considered rather daring. A television star who made it to the movies going BACK to television?! (That he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's was not known by the general public until 1998.)

Now, no one thinks anything of Fox's courageous decision. So Friends--with its Hollywood guest stars--was oddly and impressively prescient, and was from Season 1. The network obviously decided to do what all shows wish the network would do for them: back it to the hilt.

David Schwimmer as the Holiday Armadillo
Having said that, I find it almost impossible (still) to watch Ross & Rachel together. Jennifer Aniston is a fine comedienne and David Schwimmer is surprisingly willing to be the Don Knotts of the show--although Don Knotts is more charming.

As a couple, they grate. I self-censored nearly every one of the "fighting" episodes--and a number of the "wondering if we should be a couple" ones as well.

Why? As Eugene points out, failure to mature is the main reason. On an episode to episode basis, what becomes increasingly unbearable re: Ross and Rachel is the ridiculous business of both characters waiting for some special lightning bolt from the blue to decide "we are in love."

They date. They're friends. They care for each other. They sleep together. They have a baby. They live in the same apartment for a number of months. But they can't marry because "it doesn't feel right"?

It's a level of emotional self-indulgence that makes the brain melt. What exactly are they waiting for? As far I can tell, they are waiting for a single subjective moment that writes "I feel it! I feel it!" on their souls--which makes me doubt that the (final) marriage will last more than two seconds. After all, subjective feelings are prone to wax and wane. How long will it be before the writing fades?

Elizabeth hearing praises of Darcy from his housekeeper.
Compare this with Elizabeth, who was likely always attracted to Darcy but acknowledges her feelings when she encounters his good reputation at Pemberley. It isn't his wealth (although Elizabeth herself jokes about that possibility) but his decent behavior that confirms her (subjective) feelings. Her respect for him grows until she can answer her father's incredulity ("Let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life") by "relating her absolute certainty that [Darcy's] affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months’ suspense, and enumerating with energy all his good qualities."

Compare Rachel & Ross with Booth in Bones who doesn't immediately leave Hannah the moment Bones confesses her feelings to him. The man doesn't substitute a lightning bolt for loyalty and commitment. 

From manga, compare R&R to Fumi Yoshinaga's What Did You Eat Yesterday in while Shiro's desire to keep the relationship growing (partly because he hates the idea of having to start over) leads him to spend extra money on fresh peaches for Kenji (Shiro is a cheapskate so this is a big deal). His later resolution to spend New Year's Eve with Kenji--rather than his parents--is handle with maturity: he invests in his partner.

And from anime, compare R&R to Taeko and Toshio from Only Yesterday who slowly discover similarities as well as differences to admire during Taeko's vacation in Yamagata. In the end, they indicate a willingness to further a relationship of mutual respect.

Love and attraction is part of the equation in all these cases. The difference between them and Ross & Rachel is that the believable relationships don't rest upon some arbitrarily designated moment that may or may not arrive. Initial love/attraction plays a role, but the actual relationship is the result of investment and the additional perception, "I am lucky to have found this person." At the core is (to go old school) high regard, a quality I simply don't believe Rachel and Ross have for each other.