Friends: The Complete First Season appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. If you’ve seen the prior DVDs - or read my other reviews - you’ll know what to expect from the new discs. Although the shows always seemed watchable, the episodes looked surprisingly muddy and weren’t as clear as I would have liked.
Sharpness was a definite concern. At best, the picture presented a reasonably accurate image, but only occasionally did I think it appeared especially crisp or detailed. Instead, the shows usually seemed mildly hazy and dull, without much clarity. Some shimmering and jagged edges appeared as well; the moiré effects could become especially noticeable at times. Distinct evidence of edge enhancement cropped up periodically. Ala Star Trek: The Next Generation, apparently Friends is shot on film and mastered on video, which means the problems that come with both formats appear on the DVD. Some source flaws emerged. I saw mild grain throughout some of the shows, and I also detected occasional speckles, marks and a few streaks.
Colors often looked bland and drab. The hues maintained a muddled, brownish appearance much of the time, and while all colors showed problems, skin tones suffered the most. They alternated between excessive pinkness and a flat brownish look; both of them seemed unnatural. Black levels were a bit gray and blah, and shadow detail showed similar characteristics.
At times, Friends could seem frustrating because some of the episodes actually looked quite good. The quality level varied to a fairly significant degree throughout the package. One show might present a very solid picture, while the next would demonstrate all of the problems I discussed above and appear very messy. All in all, though, Friends remained watchable, and the issues I encountered seemed to stem from the source material.
While the remastered Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack of Friends definitely outdid the picture, it presented a fairly restricted presence. However, I won’t complain about this, since it’s not like Friends provides a slew of opportunities for stellar sonics; it’s a quiet, dialogue-driven show, and the audio emphasizes that fact. Music spread adequately to the side forward speakers, and it also emanated gently from the rears.
Otherwise the track often seemed to be essentially monaural. The laugh track presented a moderately involving presence from all five channels - though mainly from the front - and some mild ambiance also came from the sides and the rears. For example, one restaurant scene showed light “clinking” sounds, and a rainstorm during one episode seemed surprisingly engaging. Nonetheless, this was a very modest mix, and appropriately so.
Audio quality appeared decent but unspectacular. Dialogue generally sounded distinct and natural, but some edginess interfered at times. However, I never noted any problems related to intelligibility. Effects varied mildly but they usually came across as reasonably accurate and realistic, and they showed no signs of distortion, although the laugh track occasionally seemed rough. Music was the strongest component of the mix, as the rock score sounded fairly crisp and demonstrated pretty solid bass response. The high end periodically seemed a little flat, but for the most part, the music was clear and tight. Ultimately, Friends offered too modest an auditory experience to merit anything above a “C+”, but it nonetheless sounded fairly satisfying.
We don’t find a slew of extras of Friends, but a few supplements appear. Of course, as already noted, the episodes themselves include bonus footage. The amount of new material varies from show to show, but as far as I can tell, each one tosses in clips that didn’t appear during any TV broadcasts. I don’t know Friends well enough to recognize the new shots, but I think it’s cool that we get the uncut programs.
The other supplements appear on discs one and four. On DVD One, we get two pieces. First up is an audio commentary from executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman, and David Crane. All three were recorded separately for this track, and the results were edited together. Some of the remarks related directly to on-screen activities, but most dealt with general issues.
Overall I really enjoyed this commentary. The three covered many topics that related to the series. We found out the program’s genesis and how the various main actors were cast. The participants also went over a mix of other interesting subjects in this brisk and engaging track. Too bad we don’t find commentaries elsewhere on the disc as well; this one was a winner.
In addition, DVD One includes Cast and Crew listings for the six main actors plus the three executive producers. The bios are decent but unspectacular, and they seem to be the same ones already seen on the four Best of Friends releases. This means a few remain oddly incomplete. Some of them discuss enterprises completed during the run of Friends, but others omit this information; Matt LeBlanc’s career seems to have halted in 1988!
Weblinks also appear on all four discs. We find connections to Warner Bros.’ “special events” site as well as the studio’s home pages and a listing of their “Latest DVDs”. You can also sign up for their “Movie Mail” service.
When we move to DVD Four, we find a few additional pieces. They seem slight but fun. Friends of Friends provides a guide to Season One’s many guest stars. We get a list of the 16 prominent actors, and we can also see short clips from their appearances. It’s a fun little way to spotlight the growing list of Friends notables.
Even more entertaining is A Peek At Central Perk. This offers an interactive tour of the show’s coffee shop. Mostly this gives us text to describe various parts of the restaurant and different aspects of the production. In addition, we discover a couple of episode clips plus some sound bites from crewmembers. We hear from co-executive producer Todd Stevens, property master Marjorie Coster-Praytor, set decorator Greg Grande, executive producer Kevin Bright, and art director John Shaffner. It’s a brief overview, but it’s entertaining and informative.
Next up is a quick quiz. How Well Do You Know Your Friends? offers a few multiple-choice questions, all of which relate to Season One episodes. These definitely require you to know those shows, which makes them more fun; there aren’t any real “gimmes” here. The quiz offers no rewards other than clips that show the material discussed in the questions. That seems kind of pointless; after all, we already knew those scenes, so why show them again?
Finally, DVD Four ends with The One With the Trailer of Season Two. As you’ll probably guess, this just provides a promo to tout the upcoming release of the series’ second season. Unfortunately, we discover no timetable; it’s simply listed as “coming soon”.
To my modest surprise, I found myself very anxious to get that package ASAP. Although I know that I like Friends, I didn’t expect to enjoy the first season very much, and I definitely thought that so many episodes viewed so rapidly - I went through the set over a three-day period - would burn me out for a while. However, I actually felt a little sad when the last show ended - I wanted more!
No, the first season of Friends wasn’t its best. In reality, it’ll probably prove to be the show’s worst year. Nonetheless, I still rather enjoyed the material. The caliber of material was somewhat mediocre compared to later years, but it still mustered enough entertainment to keep me going through all 10 or so hours.
Both picture and sound quality seem mediocre for the most part. Visual images were especially problematic, as they varied from quite good to rather ugly. However, I believe the DVDs reflected the original material, so I can’t complain too much about those elements. Supplements were sparse but compelling overall.
Friends: The Complete First Season is one of those packages for which I feel like you should throw my letter grades out the window. A glance at those makes the set look very mediocre, and based on its technical merits, it is. But those marks neglect to reflect the quality of the material itself. Friends isn’t one of the all-time great sitcoms, but it’s a consistently entertaining and amusing show. This box offers a fine look at the series’ first season.
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