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What's next for Rachel and Joey?

What’s next for Rachel and Joey? Ken Tucker thinks their big moment was a disappointment and wonders what the writers have in store for their future

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Matt LeBlanc, Friends, ...

What’s next for Rachel and Joey?

This funny, lovely, high-spirited season of ”Friends” reached a turning point in this week’s episode, as Joey (Matt LeBlanc) finally told Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) that he’s fallen in love with her. Of course, in tried-and-true sitcom fashion, the moment the network had hyped throughout the Olympics didn’t occur until the last scene.

Before that, there was a terrific sub-plot; Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) realized that the guy she’d just started dating, an English food-enthusiast (isn’t that a contradiction in terms?), would be an ideal guy for the recently-married Monica (Courtney Cox Arquette), and the fact that the two did indeed hit it off when Phoebe introduced them thoroughly unnerved Monica-hubby Chandler (Matthew Perry). And few characters are funnier than a rattled Chandler.

In a nice bit of casting, Monica’s supposed ”soul mate,” Don (Harry Van Korkum), was something of a ringer for a British version of Tom Selleck — who, of course, has played an old love of Monica’s in seasons past (I think it’s the similar eyebrows and the cleft-chin). At any rate, this was a fine, self-contained comic tableau that sustained itself until the Joey-tells-Rachel scene.

Am I alone in thinking this turned out to be a heartbreaking disappointment? I know that, given the rich characterization that’s lifted ”Friends” to a new peak of popularity, Rachel would be ambivalent, given that the baby she’s carrying is Ross’. But if there’s one character who’s become less interesting this season, it’s Ross

David Schwimmer has been given the nearly impossible task of being a whining loser whom we’re still supposed to feel sympathy for, and that’s getting harder to do each week. Still, the deepening of Rachel’s character — she’s matured from early ”Friends” seasons as a spoiled brat to become a sweetly emotional, shrewd woman — had me believing during that Olympics’ hiatus that once Joey told her how he felt, she’d respond with the full memory of how wonderful he’s been throughout her pregnancy, and beyond that, how wonderful he’s become as a lot more than dumb-guy comic-relief.

So Rachel’s unambivalent response — she assumed he was joking — was startling. Didn’t you think she’d tumbled to Joey by now? Are the writers going to put us through weeks of Joey pining and Rachel feeling a mixture of guilt and resentment at being pressured to love this, this… friend?

I guess so. But you know, sometimes not getting what you want as a viewer is what makes you want to come back for more, next week. We want to see how these friends will survive, if you’ll excuse that verb.