HBO Max's ‘Friends’ Reunion: The One Where They Test the Limits of Nostalgia

After 17 years, the 'Friends' cast finally gathered in the same room, but did we really need to know that David Beckham identifies as a Monica?

May 27 2021, 8:20pm

Even 17 years after its 236-episode run from 1994 to 2004, Friends is still basically the television sitcom equivalent of McDonalds. While it received 62 Emmy nominations and averaged over 20 million regular viewers per week when it was airing, USA Today reported in 2015 that it was still earning around $1 billion in syndication money per year, which the site estimated amounted to a yearly $20 million payout to stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. In 2018, Netflix shelled out $100 million to keep the show on the service for a year, while WarnerMedia forked over an estimated $425 million to host the show on HBOMax for half a decade.

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And on HBO Max’s new Friends: The Reunion special, an unscripted feature-length show, host James Corden tells a reunited cast that the show has been viewed a whopping 100 billion times across all platforms. 

These are absurd numbers that dwarf shows like The Office or How I Met Your Mother. (Only The Big Bang Theory came remotely close to matching the show’s weekly viewer average). And it’s probably why HBO Max announced early last year that it would be reuniting the cast of Friends for a sub-two-hour special, just in time for the show's 25th anniversary. While the reunion was delayed due to the pandemic, filming finally took place this April; sources told The Hollywood Reporter that WarnerMedia would be compensating each star anywhere from $2.5 to $3 million for making an appearance—more than double than what they made per episode when the show was filming. 

Billed as the first time the cast has been in the same room since the finale (barring one occasion that is undisclosed but may have something to do with the time Jennifer Aniston took this selfie with her co-stars in 2019), Friends: The Reunion which is now streaming on HBO Max, sees the crew rehashing memories, retelling on-set stories, revisiting the reconstructed sets, and delighting in gimmicky celebrity guest bits across 105 interminable minutes. It’s part-clip show, part-documentary, part-phoned in The Late Late Show With James Corden interview—all leaning on their chemistry as co-stars, to greater and lesser effect. And while certain moments resonate and feel charming—such as the casts’ still-sharp quips—it mostly just feels like an overstuffed fever dream of fan service pandering and sanitized nostalgia. 

The show begins with cast members walking onto a rebuilt Burbank studio set featuring Central Perk and the two apartments where most of the show's action takes place, reminiscing and tearfully hugging each other. “Could you be any later?,” says an offscreen cast member when Matthew Perry finally shows up. This section of the special is heartfelt and earnest. But when the cast settles in for a chat with Corden outside the original Warner Bros. studio fountain from the show’s credits scene, and the special pivots to an interview sequence in front of a masked audience, things start to go awry. 

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Corden’s first question—“how does it feel to be reunited?”—prompts cast members to muse about how easily everyone “fell right back into” their old amiable dynamic. Lisa Kudrow explains that because their bond is so strong, other cast members will always respond to texts and pick up the phone when she tries to get in touch; Perry responds “I don’t hear from anyone.” It's a moment played for laughs, but knowing Perry’s longtime struggles with addiction and the fact that, as far as we’re aware, it took 17 years for everyone to get together in person, the special otherwise takes pains to avoid anything uncomfortable. When an audience member asks the cast if there was anything they didn’t like from the show’s 10-year run, Schwimmer retells a fan-favorite story about how he didn’t like working with Marcel the Monkey. 

While reunion shows are obviously catnip for diehard fans, wouldn’t some real honesty and introspection make for better TV than a softball tidbit fans already knew about? For these six actors, Friends was a career-defining opportunity, catapulting them to mainstream cultural relevance and global tabloid scrutiny. Why wouldn’t you mine the real human cost that comes with such atmospheric fame? 

Unfortunately, the special offers way more self-congratulation than self-reflection. While Friends was undeniably a show of its time, the cast and crew were overwhelmingly white, even by the standards of the day. And several of the jokes (See: “Fat Monica,” the transphobic characterizations of Chandler’s dad, several homophobic swipes, and even some subtle racism) don’t hold up. While show co-creator Martha Kauffman, referencing her hiring decisions and the way the show was written, admitted in 2020 to being “part of systemic racism,” the special never addresses any of the times the show faltered.

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When the special approaches the hour mark, this uniformly positive, uniformly sincere approach becomes grating. This, coupled with gratuitous, random-to-the-point-of-disbelief celebrity cameos like Justin Bieber dressing as “Spudnik,” the revelation that Malala Yousafzai is “totally a Joey with a hint of Phoebe,” and Lady Gaga coming in to upstage Kudrow’s rendition of “Smelly Cat," makes for chaotic viewing. 

Friends is a show that meant a lot to countless people. Its stars were all perfectly cast, totally charming, and hilarious. The show's creators were able to turn a story about a group of attractive 20- and 30- somethings with seemingly unlimited time to hang out, live in nice apartments, and drink coffee into something aspirational and at times transcendently funny. There’s a reason for its record-breaking success and how it continues to garner so many streams and syndications decades after the fact. The show’s comedy resonates exactly how inside jokes do with close, real-world friends. It’s comforting and familiar. 

The best part of the special highlights this exact feeling in a montage where they interview people from around the world about how the sitcom impacted their lives. A Ghanaian single mother talks about how empowered she felt when Monica proposes to Chandler. The members of BTS explain how the show helped them learn English. A Mexican loner shares that they found comfort in the cast members’ chemistry and eventually found their partner through a mutual love of the sitcom. No matter how poorly some of the material has aged, there’s no denying the power of these stories as a testament to how much the show—and pop culture writ large—can impact people's lives. But a documentary on these people alone would’ve been more compelling than Friends: The Reunion. 

Towards the end of the special, the cast once again said that there won’t be a scripted revival of Friends and shot down the idea of another televised reunion. Lisa Kudrow explained that because the show’s writers tied everything up so nicely and that each character’s lives were on track, it would be a shame to have to undo those good developments for the sake of stakes for a new show. “I don’t want anyone’s lives unraveled,” she said. After watching Friends: The Reunion, HBO Max didn’t want anything other than the happiest ending. 


Tagged:

lady gaga, FRIENDS, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber, Essays, BTS, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, TV reviews, matt leblanc, david schwimmer, HBO max, friends reunion, Courteney Cox

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