Ross and Rachel’s romance is one for the sitcom history books, and the season-one finale, “The One Where Rachel Finds Out,” is a major turning point. After a season of crushing on an oblivious Rachel, Ross heads off for a business trip to China, but not before getting her a special birthday present. She loves the pin and is surprised by Ross’s thoughtfulness. “I can’t believe he did this,” Monica says. “Come on, Ross? Remember back in college, when he fell in love with Carol and bought her that ridiculously expensive crystal duck?” Chandler blurts — and then everything changes.
But the episode almost didn’t happen that way. In fact, it wasn’t even going to be the season finale. Season-one writer and supervising producer Jeff Greenstein explained in an email to Vulture:
The original plan called for “The One With the Birth” to be the season-one finale. None of the writers had any idea that the Ross and Rachel relationship would develop the crazy momentum it did. But Schwimmer and Aniston were dynamite together, we had a blast writing for them, and somewhere around the two-thirds point in the year, circa [episode 18] “The One With All the Poker,” [director and legendary sitcom producer] Jimmy Burrows took us aside and said, “Guys, no one cares about the baby. You gotta end on the two kids.”
However, we also knew we had to alter their dynamic. The Ross/Rachel stories had fallen into a pattern of “he’s pining, she’s oblivious” that was (a) starting to feel repetitive, and (b) didn’t flatter either one of them. So we were trying to find some way to change the game.
Of course the stakes were high. Everyone cared very much about getting it right. There were lots of protracted discussions, lots of blind alleys. And then one idea started to get traction.
[Creator and executive producer] David Crane pitched a sequence where Ross and Rachel are on a road trip, they hit a bump, the car careens into a ditch, Rachel’s thrown into Ross’s arms, there’s an impulsive, passionate kiss … and then they back away: Can we do this? I’m not sure we should do this. Are we ready to do this? and so forth. People started riffing on that idea. And then I remember saying, “Gosh, I really don’t want to see that scene. These two aren’t Woody & Diane (meaning Allen & Keaton). I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy a scene where two people I know should be together neurotically talk about all the reasons they can’t be together.”
This sort of killed the momentum, and there’s an unwritten rule in a writers’ room that you shouldn’t just blow holes in a pitch if you can’t offer a good alternative. So I said, “You know, if Jane Austen wrote this story, it would go something like this.”
(I should add at this point that my wife wrote her senior thesis at Berkeley on Jane Austen long before Austen was cool, and by this point in our marriage, she’d made me read most of Austen’s novels. So I sort of knew the canon.)
I said, spitballing, “Maybe Ross is called out of town for a work thing. He knows he’s going to miss Rachel’s birthday, so he leaves behind a present for her. Ross goes away, Rachel opens the gift, and it’s something so wonderful and intensely personal that she finds herself falling in love with him. And then Ross comes back with another girl.”
There was a beat, and then David said, “Well, let’s do THAT.”
Of course the story we ended up with was a lot better than that — Chandler was a critical player in clueing Rachel in to Ross’s feelings (“crystal duck”). And the script for the finale was worked and reworked harder than any other one that year: Do the words 8 a.m. rewrite mean anything to you? But it all started with a page torn from Jane Austen’s notebook.
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