When Friends premiered in 1994, no one could have predicted that it would become a massive hit, propelling all six stars—Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer—and their characters into the cultural zeitgeist to the point that lines like “We were on a break!” instantly conjure up memories of an entire decade-long courtship between two people none of us have met.
What’s more interesting, though, is how long the show’s popularity has lasted since it went off the air in 2004. It’s still headline news when Cox says she’s binge-watching the show. Look in the background of the Vanderpump Rules cast members’ homes and you’ll see that iconic peephole frame. Even Taylor Swift performed “Smelly Cat” during her 1989 World Tour, with the help of Kudrow herself.
But what makes Friends so memorable, relatable, and re-watchable isn’t the one-off jokes or meme-able moments (though, they certainly help): It’s the characters. Friends is about everyday people hanging out and growing up. That’s the whole premise of the show, and yet it feels so magical.
The only reason any of the plot lines had stakes—the only reason it even mattered who lived where and slept with who—was that we were invested in the characters. Audiences connected with and cared about Chandler, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel, Monica, and Joey. They were the heart and soul of the show. The essential premise and set-up didn’t change from season to season, so character growth became the ultimate goal of the series. As we watched the six Friends age in real time, we felt like we got to know them and determine what was good for them—or, more important, what wasn’t.
I’d argue that the quality of the writing on Friends had its ebbs and flows, as it does on any long-running series, but stayed, overall, very high. Most moments felt earned, and the show never resorted to gimmicks to keep audiences interested. Friends stayed true to its tone for a full decade. There are no “bad” episodes—all of them have at least one great storyline happening. But even so, there are certain areas that yielded funny, fruitful, memorable plots (love triangles!) and certain areas that did…not. (Remember when Ross had a pet monkey?)
With character, jokes, individual episodes and overarching themes all taken into consideration, I’ve ranked the 10 seasons of Friends from worst to best. Or, more accurately, these are ranked from most uneven to most completely stellar.