The ‘Friends’ Reunion Is a Joyful Tribute to a Bygone Era. Too Bad It Can’t Give Us What We Need.

I first realized the sitcom Friends represented something essential when a friend admitted she could not sleep without it. I mean that literally. During a particularly challenging period in her early 20s, she’d load an episode of Friends and prop her laptop on her nightstand, so that Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, Joey, Rachel, and Ross could lull her into REM with jokes about dinosaur bones and lobster love pacts. And it seemed to be the only thing that worked. If she could slip into 1990s New York City with a crew of six friends who seemingly never worked, then she could quiet her mind and finally find some peace. It was a dramatic, but telling, example of the sort of loyalty Friends has commanded since it first aired in 1994. Those six goofballs brought people joy—for many, it was a true, breathless sort of joy—and, for better or worse, there has never been a show like it since.

Which makes Friends: The Reunion such an odd spectacle to hold up to the light. The highly anticipated, long-awaited HBO Max special gathers Courtney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, and David Schwimmer in the same room for the second-ever time in 17 years—a bit of a surprising fact, given the six shared such an undeniable bond over the course of the show’s decade-long tenure. But Friends: The Reunion would love if we could scoot past that detail, at least after we establish that this is a BIG MOMENT for everyone and therefore EXCITING and worth LOTS OF MONEY. It’s been reported that the cast members each received well over $2.5 million just to appear in the special, so it’s impossible to extract Friends: The Reunion from its status as a cash grab. Despite the producers’ best efforts, that dollop of greed glimmers all too often in the shadows of the episode’s best moments. Remember, Friends: The Reunion was originally intended as part of HBO Max’s launch. All of this is strategic.

Terence PatrickHBO

And yet, it would be crude and incorrect to imply the special is nothing but a ploy. Over the course of the episode’s 1-hour-and-44-minute runtime, there are scenes that positively sparkle. As each cast member strolls back onto Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. Studio lot, their emotions are raw and distinct to who they’ve become as celebrities—Aniston is controlled but weepy; LeBlanc naturally loose and cheery; Perry notably apprehensive. The set is meticulously recreated, down to the Etch-a-Sketch on Joey and Chandler’s front door, so detailed it takes several minutes for the cast to explore every cranny and admit that, wow, yes, this is how it was.

In the scenes that follow, the special attempts to decide whether it’s a talk show, game show, documentary or roundtable, without ever settling into any option. Late-night host James Corden sits down with the cast on the beloved Central Perk couch before a live studio audience and asks them what they didn’t enjoy about filming (in Schwimmer’s case, dealing with the monkey), if there were any off-set romances (apparently, yes, sort of), and where they expect their characters to be today (Joey would own a sandwich shop in Venice Beach).

The cast plays a creative spin on the trivia game that lost Monica and Rachel their apartment. They gather around a table to read from iconic scenes, such as Rachel and Ross’s first kiss and the infamous Chandler-peeing-on-Monica’s-leg-after-a-jellyfish-sting incident. There are interviews with the creators and interviews with utterly random celebrities (hi, Jon Snow!). Kudrow and Lady Gaga do a rendition of “Smelly Cat” with a gospel choir. There’s a fashion show in which Justin Bieber wears Ross’s Sputnik costume. There’s a lot going on, some that works and some that really doesn’t.

But what makes the special such a fascinating study is not in its individual components, but in its overall approach to nostalgia. All of this is about nostalgia, of course, which Hollywood has realized is a dramatically profitable enterprise in the modern era. Ask any cultural critic—or even casual moviegoer—and they’ll likely agree we’re in some sick genius’s version of reboot hell. Gossip Girl, Sex and The City, iCarly, The Proud Family, and How I Met Your Mother are all getting reboots. Game of Thrones has multiple prequel spin-offs in the works. There’s another Batman movie on the way, as well as another Home Alone. The Powerpuff Girls are getting a live-action treatment, as are The Jetsons and many—if not most—of the Disney animated classics. We almost got Lizzie McGuire back. Just yesterday, after Amazon acquired MGM, CEO Jeff Bezos openly admitted the move was part of a strategy to continue the reboot trend: “MGM has a vast, deep catalog of much beloved intellectual property. And with the talent at Amazon and the talent at MGM Studio, we can reimagine and develop that IP for the 21st century.”

Oh, and Ben Affleck is dating Jennifer Lopez, so there’s that.

None of them seem interested in probing it beyond, “We had great chemistry. It was lightning in a bottle.”

In this sort of environment, it’s worth noting that Friends: The Reunion shows an important level of restraint. It is a reunion, not a reboot. Some of that decision is doubtlessly due to the logistical and financial hurdles it would take to get all six actors back into Studio 24 long enough to film multiple episodes of a sitcom, but some of it seems to come from a genuine understanding that the time of Friends has come and gone. The show is a byproduct of a bygone era, and it would be impossible to recreate it today without unraveling what made it work in the first place. As Kudrow says toward the end of the special, “We have to grow up,” and for those of us who grew up with Friends, that’s what happened. We moved on. Revisiting the show is easy, whether on streaming platforms or through cable reruns. But the growing up still happened, and ignoring it would be sacrilege.

So Friends: The Reunion’s choice not to reenact entire scenes or force its actors to film an episode set in a 2021 Central Perk overrun with pour-over coffee and oat milk is worth applauding. But that doesn’t mean the special does nostalgia any justice, or that it gives us, as an audience, what we need.

True nostalgia can be harnessed correctly. The idea that there’s no such thing as a good reboot, revival, or even reunion is ludicrous. Stories can be revisited—in fact, it’s essential to our understanding of culture that they are. But a revival, reunion, or reboot—anything that starts with “re-”—should always seek to impart some sense of clarity, if not something markedly new. Otherwise, why muddle something that already exists in its original (and arguably purest) form?

The problem with Friends: The Reunion is that it takes a spectacular opportunity for clarity and squanders it on celebrity fashion shows and Lady Gaga’s (admittedly remarkable) pipes. The best moments of the special are when the actors are given breathing room. When they finally have the opportunity to sit and reflect on what, precisely, Friends was, and how it transformed them, that’s when we get a faint sniff of something meaningful. We get one when LeBlanc remarks on the time he watched helicopters circle their homes on live television. We get another when Aniston admits Friends set her jaw-dropping fame into motion. We get another when Perry reveals he would break into sweats and convulsions whenever the live audience wouldn’t laugh at his jokes.

Of all the actors, it’s Perry who feels the most disconnected from the rose-colored veneer with which the cast and celebrity guests discuss the show. He is often on the perimeter of shots, seemingly holding his tongue or smiling through gritted teeth. It’s obvious he loves his castmates, but when he jokes once that he never gets a text or a call from any of them, it’s not clear if he’s actually joking. His drug and alcohol abuse during his time on the show is an open secret, and it’s likely that he only agreed to the special so long as that topic never came up. And yet it lingers in every single scene Perry steps into, along with the rest of Friends’ expansive baggage.

The show is and was infamous for the vitriol it inspires. It was criticized for being racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic and antiquated—and many of those criticisms are valid to this day. Hating Ross Geller became a personality trait just as surely as knowing all the lyrics to the theme song. But I don’t believe the reunion needed to mea culpa its way through these pitfalls in order to create a worthy special. Nobody needs two hours of six famous white celebrities apologizing for the appalling lack of diversity on a show that made them into global superstars. It would be an empty, patronizing gesture.

But what if, perhaps, the special could have shed all the extraneous material and let the actors really talk about it? Schwimmer and Kudrow have made some comments before, but what if they were given a full space to reflect on it together? How do they think about Friends now? Does it embarrass them? Thrill them? What have they learned since, about Hollywood and the nature of nostalgia? Forget Aniston and Schwimmer’s would-be romance, what about all the personal drama the cast endured during the course of the show, and how did they lean on one another during those difficult days? Of course they don’t want to discuss it. They have moved on with their lives, even if their audience has not. Perhaps even cannot.

One of the most powerful and emotional moments in the special arrives when the camera turns to fans all over the world, in Ghana and Russia and India and Japan, who reveal how the show helped them make big life decisions or endure remarkable hardships. No matter your personal feelings about Friends, it is undeniable that the show is a hallmark of American television, a story that inspired and continues to inspire millions into dogged devotion. So why? And is it even possible to create that spark again? No one in Friends: The Reunion can really answer that question, because none of them seem interested in probing it beyond, “We had great chemistry. It was lightning in a bottle.”

But it wasn’t just lightning in a bottle. Friends was a carefully orchestrated story with a cast that was painstakingly assembled. Every script was intentional, for better or worse. We know this is the last time the Friends cast will come together like this, and what we needed from the reunion was something that would last. We needed something to grasp, something about how an ensemble is built, on television and in real life, and how shows can learn from the past to develop richer material in the future—even in the form of a reboot. What we needed was some sort of signal that, in the year 2021, these sorts of stories can still evolve, can bloom from the minds of brilliant creatives, reinvigorated and ready to astound an exhausted landscape. But Friends: The Reunion is only interested in a breezy bird’s-eye approach to the past, not a dive into the muck and mire for hidden gems. This special didn’t need to happen; it won’t help us sleep at night. And so the credits roll, we wipe at our tears and trade embarrassed laughs. And then we return to our lives and forget.

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