Guest star Winona Ryder deserved better -- and so do fans, says Nicholas Fonseca

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April 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why ”Friends”’ lesbian kiss was a lame stunt

”Stop picturing it!”

Thus spake Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) to horny friend Joey (Matt LeBlanc) in Thursday’s much hyped episode of NBC’s ”Friends.” She was referring, of course, to the kiss she supposedly planted on old college friend Melissa at a long ago fraternity party. The show’s stunt casting of Winona Ryder as Melissa — indeed, the entire girl on girl kiss itself — seemed to arise for no other reason than that ”Friends” is getting clobbered by the CBS timeslot competitor ”Survivor.”

Unfortunately for viewers, it was hard to follow Rachel’s advice. Aniston and Ryder — for those of you who follow these sorts of things — are part of a heterosexual Hollywood Mobius strip that has Aniston married to a man, Brad Pitt, who once seriously dated a woman, Gwyneth Paltrow, who dated a man, Ben Affleck, who was best friends with Ryder’s old flame, Matt Damon. So, by the time they finally did kiss, the moment had been so endlessly plugged that the only real shock was how unshocking it was.

The kiss existed as nothing more than a vehicle for NBC’s promotions department to slap Ryder’s face all over its commercials, a cheap thrill for anybody who didn’t care to watch Elisabeth get kicked off ”Survivor.”

What’s worse, the kiss — which occurred in the present, not a flashback, because Melissa couldn’t remember it at all — immediately sparked old feelings of passion in Ryder’s character, a lesbian, who apparently carried a torch for Rachel for years. (Yeah, right. Like any self respecting lesbian would wear a powder blue power suit.)

It was an easy out, but one that a show like ”Friends,” which has ridden on the ”What’s really going on with Joey and Chandler?” wave for eons, can get away with. Making matters worse, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) decided to plant one on Rachel’s lips for the heck of it. Apparently ”Friends” writers have forgotten that out-of-character shenanigans like this sent ”Ellen”’s ratings diving at the beginning of her final season.

But I digress. ”Friends” has never been a gay show, so its depictions of homosexuality — or same sex kissing experiments — probably shouldn’t be the subject of any doctoral theses. This is a show about six straight friends who, for Nielsen’s sake, keep encountering characters played by stars whose wattage is so bright it overpowers their natural camaraderie. Anybody who has appreciated their seven(!) years of laughs doesn’t need a guest star stuck in a mediocre story thread as a reason to tune in.

However, last night’s episode offered a glimmer of hope for Ryder, a two time Oscar nominee who hasn’t exactly been blessed at the box office in the past few years. After a soulless romance (”Autumn in New York”) and an unscary thriller (”Lost Souls”), our Noni needed redemption. No, she didn’t have to stretch last night, but it was refreshing to watch Ryder let her hair down. Find a good comedic script, girl, and soon you won’t have to resort to unnecessary NBC sitcom guest spots to win back our respect.

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