When Friends premiered on NBC, the cast had no idea whether it would even be picked up for additional episodes. Most of them had been struggling in Hollywood for years, and this new show about six twentysomethings in New York City felt like it might be just another pilot that went nowhere. “Everyone was kind of keeping their distance and not really investing too much emotionally,” David Schwimmer would recall on Oprah a year later. “There’s also the reality that any one of us could be removed after the pilot.”
Lucky for them, NBC debuted the series directly between new episodes of Mad About You and Seinfeld (and just 90 minutes before the first-ever episode of E.R.), which meant that an astonishing 21 million people watched Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, and Matt LeBlanc come together on the small screen for the first time.
It was the beginning of a cultural phenomenon — one that over 10 seasons would see the gang fall in and out of love, change jobs, apartments, and hairstyles, and spend an inordinate amount of time on a hideous couch in a coffee shop — that still resonates today. Twenty-five years later, what is it about this show that people love so damn much? In a world overblown with technology, more and more young people are drawn to a simpler time before they were born, when, in a desperate situation, all you could do was borrow a rich guy’s cell phone at a nearby restaurant table and drunkenly profess your love over voicemail. Friends is comforting, heartbreaking, hilarious, and bingeworthy — so addictive, in fact, that you may even get fired for watching it.
Sure, a show with six white leads and no person of color in sight would not fly in 2019, and was not really even OK back then. (“I’d like y’all to get a black friend,” Oprah told the cast. “Maybe I could stop by. In fact, I’m thinking about buying that apartment building next door!”) Still, the characters — sarcastic and romantically insecure Chandler; loopy, earthy Phoebe; intellectual yet emotionally unstable Ross; controlling, neurotic Monica; suave, dim-witted Joey; and charming yet superficial Rachel — were instantly lovable. Watching them bicker and bond, it felt like they were your actual pals, ones you developed a secret language with. (“Could I be wearing any more clothes?”) “The Friends should be like the Beatles,” co-creator Marta Kauffman told Rolling Stone in 1995. “Everyone has their favorite, and who you choose says something about you as a person.”
We love them all too much to choose, but in honor of this landmark anniversary, here are our favorite 25 episodes. From mortifying Thanksgivings and jellyfish stings to cross-country road trips, wedding dress capers, and more, it highlights the unforgettable hijinks and heartfelt moments we can’t wait to watch, over and over, for another 25 years. — Angie Martoccio
[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published September 2019]