1. “The One with the Monkey” (Season 1, Episode 10)
I find it magical when separate storylines connected through a loose frame meet for one climactic moment. In this episode, it’s when the friends stand alone together at a New Year’s Eve party — just like they planned to do before they all got dates (except for Ross, who brought his new monkey, Marcel). Every storyline, especially the sobering A-plot of Phoebe’s ill-fated relationship with David, shines in this hilarious and crushing winner.
2. “The One with the Dozen Lasagnas” (Season 1, Episode 12)
Say it with me: Paolo is the worst. He’s dating Rachel, but he comes on to Phoebe while she’s AT WORK giving him a massage. It’s douchey to the nth degree, but the bonding between Phoebe and Rachel after the former tells the latter epitomizes the kind of warm friendship moments Friends excels at, as does the sillier Chandler-and-Joey-buy-a-table storyline. That’s right. This is the episode where we meet the (first) foosball table. A historic day.
3. “The One with the Boobies” (Season 1, Episode 13)
“Boobies” comes in hot, with Chandler accidentally seeing Rachel topless pretty much immediately, before no one told us life was gonna be this way. A great opening, but it’s far from the best moment in an episode chock-full of anger, heart, and playfulness. Here’s what we’re dealing with: Phoebe’s psychologist boyfriend, who tries to psychoanalyze everyone in the group, is hated by them all, and Joey’s father spends the night, along with his mistress. (Rachel and Chandler, plus eventually Joey and Monica, do their “booby” storyline every once in a while for some solid laughs, though it’s not okay to try to see someone naked if they don’t want you to.)
4. “The One with the Candy Hearts” (Season 1, Episode 14)
This episode is about three February 13th/Valentine’s Day stories: Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe’s “ex-boyfriend bonfire”, Chandler’s accidental semi-reconciliation with Janice, and Ross’s normal first date that morphs into a painfully bittersweet near “date” with Carol. (Joey’s in the stellar double date scene in the first half of the episode that always makes me cackle.) The tone of this one is consistently, uniquely lovely, making it a should-be-Valentine’s-Day-TV classic.
5. “The One with the Birth” (Season 1, Episode 23)
I know it’ll become clear the more you read this, but I’ll just say it here and now: I love a claustrophobic episode. You know, one with few locations and/or braided storylines. In this case, there’s much more literal claustrophobia when Susan, Ross, and Phoebe get stuck in a hospital closet while Carol’s in labor with Ben. We also have Rachel flirting with Carol’s doctor, Joey helping a woman (a great Leah Remini) give birth, and Chandler and Monica foreshadowing their love story through baby and marriage discussions.
6. “The One with Phoebe’s Husband” (Season 2, Episode 4)
While Phoebe’s titular storyline is quite good, this episode is fantastic because of one scene and its flawless direction: the scene where the friends’ secrets come out. In addition to that magnificence, in “Phoebe’s Husband”, Rachel’s longing for Ross turns lightly vicious – Jennifer Aniston, you deserve every award – and it gives us a beautiful unrequited-yet-of-course-requited climactic conversation. Also, I mean, everyone watching Joey’s “porno movie” is legendary.
7. “The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Friends rarely discusses money in any sort of depth, so an episode that drills into the financial differences between the friends stands in a vibe of its own. Rachel, Joey, and Phoebe make less money than Monica, Chandler, and Ross. It doesn’t matter except when it does, like when the wealthier three want to have dinner “some place nice.” That realistic, nuanced conflict makes this feel almost grittier than Friends normally is, but in a good way that still fits the overarching tone of the show. (Note: Chandler’s subplot involves tricking a woman into sleeping with him and that’s not chill.)
8. “The One with the Lesbian Wedding” (Season 2, Episode 11)
Part of Friends’s legacy will always be an extreme lack of diversity, most notably in terms of race, but also in terms of LGBTQ+ representation (there’s also sexism, with some very fragile definitions of manhood and womanhood, rampant transphobia, and the whole “Fat Monica” thing). But the show was trailblazing and “modern” in many ways, like by airing the second same-sex wedding in sitcom history, even if there are bad jokes about it and we don’t see Carol and Susan kiss (ugh). Every plot in this episode is exceptional, and Ross walking Carol down the aisle is, in my opinion, the best thing he ever did.
9. “The One with the Two Parties” (Season 2, Episode 22)
I could praise this episode for far too long, but I’ll keep it short. When both of Rachel’s mid-divorce parents show up for her birthday party, an impromptu second party at Chandler and Joey’s apartment must be thrown. Rachel straddles the celebrations and ultimately mourns the family she’s always known while the friends show their love for her by keeping her parents apart. Fundamentally, shenanigans and sincere moments intertwine in a Rachel-centric triumph.
10. “The One Without the Ski Trip” (Season 3, Episode 17)
My god does this episode have a lot of work to do. It – essentially alone – is the transition to post Ross-and-Rachel Friends, as much as that ever really exists. The script isn’t flawless, but that’s okay, it doesn’t have to be. The fact that it realistically gets us to Rachel and Ross being able to be in a room together again is achievement enough, especially considering how much Ross sucks during most of the episode. Hey, if you want to watch Friends but also sit in non-overwhelming sadness, this is for you.
11. “The One Where Chandler Crosses the Line” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Chandler falling for Joey’s love interest, Kathy, is arguably the greatest Chandler storyline outside of Monica. Matthew Perry portrays the longing and guilt with such tenderness and quiet anger, it affects me every time. “The One Where Chandler Crosses the Line” is when that secret love boils over, resulting in a deep betrayal of Joey. Also, on a much lighter note (inadvertent pun), here Ross plays the keyboard and we bear witness to his “sound.” It’s impressively terrible.
12. “The One After Ross Says Rachel” (Season 5, Episode 1)
Perhaps this falls more in the “famous” camp than the definition of “underrated” requires, but I still don’t think it’s beloved like it should be. We pick up where the Season 4 finale left us, with Ross saying he takes “thee Rachel”, we move through Monica and Chandler attempting to secretly hook up, Ross searching for a runaway Emily, Rachel loving Ross, and Joey perfectly appearing when the story needs him, all the way to an ending of Rachel flying to Greece alone on Ross and Emily’s honeymoon. It’s 22-minutes of clever, quick chaos. (Note: at one point Emily hits Ross, and that’s not okay.)
13. “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” (Season 5, Episode 4)
Following “The One Hundredth” (where Phoebe gives birth to the triplets) is a difficult task, but “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” succeeds. Phoebe puts the babies behind her and butts heads with Joey over whether selfless good deeds exist, a secretly together Chandler and Monica have a light and amusing fight in the last episode before someone finds out about them, and Ross struggles between staying with Emily and never speaking to Rachel again or getting divorced for the second time before he’s 30.
14. “The One with Monica’s Thunder” (Season 7, Episode 1)
“The One with Monica’s Thunder” and its impeccably interwoven plots sing. Everyone has something perfect to do, from Rachel and Monica’s fight to Joey’s attempt to look 19 (and his disappearing candy bar). Each small thing pays off — sometimes minutes later — and basically every joke is plot-related. The only locations are Monica’s apartment and balcony, the hallway, and Joey’s apartment, which I absolutely love. Just watch this episode, people.
15. “The One Where They’re Up All Night” (Season 7, Episode 12)
Unlike many of the greats, this has four isolated storylines: Rachel and Tag trying to prove who’s right about a work thing (4th best, because they both lie and at one point Rachel says she “didn’t want to seem too bossy” — also, you know, maybe don’t date your assistant), then there’s Chandler not falling asleep and Monica dealing with it (3rd best, good but just that), Joey and Ross getting locked out on the roof and fire-escape (2nd best, because the best is faultless), and Phoebe battling it out with her smoke detector (what a best). It’s such a fun episode.
16. “The One Where Rosita Dies” (Season 7, Episode 13)
The Rosita in question is Joey’s armchair, and while Rosita’s plot is Shakespearian in its low-level misunderstandings and hijinks, which I always adore, this episode is on the list because of Monica’s storyline. It’s made obvious throughout Friends that Monica and Ross’s parents prefer their son, but nowhere is it personified better than through Ross’s immaculately preserved childhood memory boxes and Monica’s purposely-flood-damaged ones. Then there’s Phoebe, who’s on the phone with a suicidal Jason Alexander in a rare example of Friends digging into dark humor.
17. “The One with the Videotape” (Season 8, Episode 4)
I may be playing it a tad fast and loose again by including “The One with the Videotape” on a list of the most underrated episodes, because any reasonable person would rank it in their top 10, but my lord, we don’t talk about it enough. Ross’s accidental recording of him and Rachel conceiving Emma, and Monica and Chandler’s honeymoon pals potentially giving them a fake number combine to gift us with the greatest small reveals Friends ever did, one after the other.
18. “The One with the Birthing Video” (Season 8, Episode 15)
Valentine’s Day is made for sitcoms — it shows up twice on this list — but that all of the storylines in this episode would work on another day takes away any possible compulsory cheese. Nobody’s 14th is good, least of all poor Mona, whose boyfriend just moved in with his pregnant ex-girlfriend and lied to her about it (Come on, Ross). From Chandler and Monica watching a tape of a birth to Joey’s unrequited love for Rachel, this episode just works, all-around.
19. “The One with the Pediatrician” (Season 9, Episode 3)
Better episodes were sacrificed for this one, but difficult choices must be made when there’s Mike’s introduction to consider. His mime-piano courting of Phoebe is such a genius way to prove he’s weird enough for her, while the rest of the episode shows how understated, calm, and grounded he is. Plus, quite importantly, Ross still sees his pediatrician. Chandler’s very big move to Tulsa could have easily gotten lost in the shadows, but it, too, takes up just the right amount of space.
20. “The One with the Cake” (Season 10, Episode 4)
I’m such a sucker for episodes centered around one thing, like Emma’s first birthday party, which deteriorates because Rachel and Ross won’t wake her from her nap, and the bunny cake’s actually in the shape of a penis. Meanwhile, Chandler and Monica’s frustration grows as their train to Vermont gets closer, and before Joey and Phoebe join them in wanting to leave, they struggle with their gifts. There’s also the great detail of Ross filming the party so Emma can watch the tape on her eighteenth birthday.