Friends' peerless writing staff really spreads the wealth in this pivotal third season. Each of this seamless ensemble's cast members was given a story arc that deepened and enriched their characters.
Most devastatingly, Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel's (freshly minted Emmy-winner Jennifer Aniston) romance is torn asunder by Ross's jealousy (not to mention his one-night stand while the couple are, now famously, "on a break"). Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) is reunited with her half brother (Giovanni Ribisi) and meets a family friend (Terri Garr; inspired casting) who drops a Darth Vader-esque bombshell about Phoebe's parentage. Monica (Courtney Cox) begins the season reeling from her breakup with Richard (Tom Selleck, who reappears in "The One Where Monica and Richard Are Friends"), but rebounds with Pete (Jon Favreau from Swingers), a millionaire ("He's the perfect guy," she states. "He has everything. Plus he actually has everything"). Chandler is driven to increasingly hysterical attempts to "go through the tunnel" and commit to his relationship with Janice (Maggie Wheeler). And womanizer Joey (Matt LeBlanc) reveals his soulful side when he falls for an initially contemptuous theatrical costar. Also lending memorable support are Alison LaPlaca, as Rachel's self-absorbed new boss, and an Emmy-worthy Ben Stiller ("The One with the Screamer") as Rachel's new boyfriend whose volcanic temper only erupts in front of Ross.
Friends continues its hit-and-miss history with A-list cameos. Robin Williams and Billy Crystal ("The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion") are about as funny as the woeful film they were hyping, Fathers' Day. More memorable is Isabella Rossellini ("The One with Frank Jr."), whom the hapless Ross meets just after crossing her off his "freebie list" of celebrities Rachel would allow him to sleep with. Other classic episodes include the season-opener, "The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy" and "The One with the Flashback," which offers some provocative near-couplings between Monica and Joey, Ross and Phoebe, and Chandler and Rachel. Add a chick and a duck ("The One with a Chick, and a Duck"), and you have a benchmark season in this irreplaceable series. But still: You'd think a million dollars an episode would buy some DVD cast commentary! --Donald Liebenson