By now pocketing ludicrous amounts of cash per episode whilst battling media attention, the desire to move into feature films and the occasional miniature scandal, the cast of Friends kicked off their seventh season safe in the knowledge that their series was already becoming more a successful and bankable sitcom than even Seinfeld (that season kick-off, by the way, won’t be reviewed on this site just yet - for some reason we weren’t sent the first DVD in this batch!)
Warner Brothers have obviously decided that a bit more cash was in order this time around as well - for instead of presenting season 7 on DVD in the format which has become familiar - eight episodes on a dual-sided disc, four per side - the company has opted for a different approach here. And unfortunately, the fans are the ones that lose out, for instead of eight episodes per disc, each DVD in this season gives you only four of them. Twice.
The gimmick is the inclusion of “extended episodes”. Long time TV sitcom and series viewers will have noticed the diminishing amount of actual content in their favourite shows over the past decade, with more and more space of a half-hour sitcom’s running time now being given over to advertising; like season 6 of Friends, season 7’s episodes run for a paltry 21 minutes, most of them pretty tightly edited to hit the magic 21-minute mark almost precisely. Four of those 21-minute wonders are presented on side A of this disc (and good luck finding which side is which without a magnifying glass, by the way), while side B offers “extended” versions of the very same episodes - but don’t expect a radical surprise. Indeed, only the most anal Friends nuts are going to readily be able to spot the difference between the shorter and longer versions, with three of the episodes scoring an extra two minutes and the other graced with 60 bonus seconds. What these longer versions look like is, in fact, simply the original edits of the episodes before the editors were forced to attack them and wrestle them down to the 21-minute barrier.
It is, of course, great to be given longer cuts of each episode - but why not JUST the long versions? Surely no-one is going to willingly sit down and watch a shortened version of their favourite episode simply because it’s “the original, man”? We would have liked to have seen the extended episodes included at a rate of eight per disc, offering faithful fans the value they deserve. As it stands, what you get for your hard-earned 30-odd dollars (the very same price as the eight-episode discs) is 91 minutes of television you’ve seen before; the “176 minute” running time listed on the back cover is a bit of an exaggeration.
While this is not one of the best seasons of Friends - it was showing its age by this stage - there are still a few decent laughs to be had. The four episodes included here are:
The One With The Engagement Picture: While Rachel flirts with her ludicrously-named office assistant Tag, Monica attempts to get a picture taken of her and Chandler to mark their engagement - but unfortunately, once put in front of a camera Chandler can’t smile, only grimace.
The One With Nap Partners: Monica meets a former girlfriend of Chandler’s from long ago, Rachel and Phoebe compete to be Monica’s bridesmaid, and Ross and Joey discover true sleep bliss in each other’s arms. No, really.
The One With Ross’ Library Book: Joey meets the girl of his dreams, who’s not as she seems (poetry unintended). Chandler’s old flame Janice reappears with THAT voice in frighteningly grating form, and Ross finds a book that he wrote is in the library, but is popular for the wrong reason. Keep an eye out for a quick cameo by Australian model Sarah O’Hare in this one.
The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs: Phoebe’s smuggling of a puppy into Monica and Chandler’s apartment horrifies him, Tag comes to dinner and Ross tries in vain to name all fifty United States for no particular reason.
The full-frame transfers of the four episodes here are substantially better than those offered on the season 6 discs - gone, for one thing, is most of the “gauze” over the image, and both resolution and colour saturation seem improved. This is a TV show filmed (on 35mm) in front of an audience and post-produced at lightning speed, though, so don’t expect miracles. Despite a bit of edge-enhancement on occasion, the episodes here look decent enough to please fans of the show. Interestingly, the average encoding bitrate on side B is higher than on side A, despite the episodes being longer; it's the higher-bitrate 5.0 audio stream, most likely, that is the reason for this.
Audio is straightforward stereo, as broadcast, on side A. The extended episodes on side B, though, surprisingly offer a Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack. Don’t expect aural fireworks - this is, after all, just a TV sitcom, where the dialogue is all-important and the (mostly authentic) laugh track tells you when to be amused. But any move towards a discrete soundtrack is welcome news for those with systems that can make use of it. Interestingly, when downmixed to stereo the two tracks sound virtually identical. As with the previous season’s discs, sound quality is clean and coherent.
Extras-wise, there’s only the usual PC Friendly software suite and a web page that links to a few bits of the Warner Brothers web site - nothing to get at all excited about, and if you have any kind of software or hardware DVD player on your computer already, it’s certainly not worth installing the PC Friendly software (though at least in this release a lot of the third-party video drivers that were included for no apparent reason are now gone).