Friends - Season 8 Box Set (12)

Review by Jack Foley

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: None

THEY'VE been here for us for eight seasons and yet still they remain as welcome as ever. The cast of Friends may have enjoyed varying degrees of success away from their TV personas, but Friday nights just wouldn't be the same without the New York six-some and their very special guests.

Some would argue that the show has become laboured and unfunny; that it is showing its age; or that it has seldom come close to recapturing the magic of its first two seasons - but what it may lack in freshness, it makes up for with familiarity. With Chandler, Joey, Monica, Ross, and co, you know exactly what you're going to get.

Rather like a real life friend, I guess, you may tire of them sometimes - but when push comes to shove, they are there for you when it counts. And in the case of the TV Friends, they can bring a welcome smile to the grottiest day!

Season eight, which is now available to buy as a complete box set on DVD, picks up just moments after Monica and Chandler tied the knot - but while the trials and tribulations of marriage play an important part of the run, it is the theme of Rachel's pregnancy which becomes the season's focus, as the story progresses from fatherhood revelations, towards the maternity ward two-part finale, and taking in the tug of love between Ross and Joey.

Well-written, laugh-out-loud funny and frequently life affirming, season eight is generally acknowledged as something of a return to season one form, with the Ross/Rachel/Joey love triangle seeing viewers flocking back to the hit show States-side and prompting a ninth season - as much out of demand, as the need to inflate pay packets.

And the star of the season is undoubtedly Joey, now firmly in place as the show's biggest comedian (displacing married man, Chandler), and rightly rewarded with an Emmy nomination to boot. Rachel continues to be as sympathetic as she is annoying, while Ross appears to have come through the hysteria which beset him in earlier seasons (following his painful break-up from Rachel).

Chandler, meanwhile, continues to be funny (if more restrained and 'under the thumb' than usual), while Monica remains her neurotic, cleanliness-obsessed self; and Phoebe is as dippy as ever.

Indeed, one of the strengths of the show has been its ability to constantly develop the characters, so that it seldom feels like you're watching the same gags, the same situations and the same pitfalls befalling them over and over again. As we have grown up with the characters, so the characters themselves have grown up.

And where would the show be without its guest stars? Previous seasons have entertained the likes of Julia Roberts, Tom Selleck, Charlie Sheen, Bruce Willis and Robin Williams - this time around, however, the really big guns have been drafted in, from Brad Pitt's brilliantly funny turn as a Rachel-hating ex-school chum in 'The One With The Rumour' to Sean Penn falling for both Phoebe and her evil twin.

Another strength is the ability to be able to lure such big names to the series without ever letting them hog the limelight - guest star cameos always remain fun, but never at the cost of the central characters themselves.

In all, then, this is another essential series for all genuine fans of the series.