AKA The One With Nostalgia Factor And Not Much Else
Starring Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer
There was a time when Friends was the biggest show in the world and its young stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer catapulted into stratospheric stardom. Even though many aspects of Friends have become dated, with some jokes not ageing well, it continues to perform successfully on streaming services and appreciated by audiences both young and old. It seems natural, therefore, that when HBO Max needed a draw for its then-emerging streaming platform, that it would pull out the big guns in organising an unscripted reunion special. Though hopes of a new episode for our favourite characters were quashed, fans were eager at the opportunity to see these six actors back in the same room together for the first time in 17 years.
Unfortunately, what emerges is likely what would have, in the misty, bygone days of physical media, been relegated to a special feature that only the most die-hard of fans would dive into. Offering little in the way of new information for lots of the audience, the reunion seems overly long, with some segments downright bizarre and the moments of joy and entertainment far too few to justify its bloated 2-hour runtime.
Probably the most magical element of the special is just revelling in the enjoyment of the six friends being together again. Even they’re not in character, there’s such a love and respect, and nostalgic tearfulness for the years gone by and the utterly unique, unparalleled connection that these actors share. As they, one by one, enter the sets that they spent an entire decade on, there’s a quiet stillness that would have been nice to sit in that while longer. Starting with David Schwimmer, followed by Lisa Kudrow, then Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox and, finally, Matthew Perry, each of the group greet their surroundings with the same ease as they slip back into their own relationship, but with the clear weight of ageing, rose-tinted mistiness for the slipping of time through their fingers.
There are nice stories shared between them, from Courteney Cox writing her lines on the table in Monica’s apartment, and concealing them amongst the apples, to the group wistfully recalling how they used to be entirely inseparable in the early seasons of the show, eating practically every meal together.
Unfortunately, this is contrasted with more uncomfortable, eye-roll inducing moments, especially the formal, sit-down interview with James Corden. This interview doesn’t break particularly new ground, and the cast look conspicuously less comfortable in his presence than when they were left to their own devices. The same questions that have been asked to the cast probably a thousand times since the end of the tenth season are posed all over again: were Ross and Rachel on a break? Will there be a reunion film or episode? For the first, a definitive “yes”, and for the second a resounding “no”, as has been the case in every interview for almost the past two decades. As most fans know, Friends is the story of that period in your early twenties where your friends are like your family. We know this because that has been the response and the answer that has been repeated ad nauseum from series creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane.
Coupled with a random fashion show, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances from other members of the cast and a trivia quiz hosted by David Schwimmer in which the cast fail to answer questions that quite a few fans would know the answers to, it’s disappointing that the reunion chooses to skip over anything even vaguely controversial from the original run. In repeat viewings, the show has been accused of being homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic and aggressively white, but anybody unaware of that fact would be none the wiser after watching this episode. It might have been more appropriate for the special to acknowledge and address these feelings, and the ways in which Friends likely would have been made differently if it were airing nowadays, instead of treating us to David Beckham’s favourite episode, which I’m sure all viewers were on the edge of their seat for.
The other elephant in the room is Matthew Perry, a star who has been open about their troubles with addiction during the run of the show. Even admitting to co-stars that he felt that he would die if he didn’t get a laugh from the audience, some of these moments feel slightly uncomfortable, and while it would have been inappropriate to pressure Perry into disclosing information that he didn’t want to, it almost feels as if it the special glorifies the show too much. A discussion about how tricky it was for the group to be anonymous twenty-somethings who were suddenly propelled into worldwide stardom could have been really fascinating, instead of forcing the stars to yet again shoot down rumours of a film.
Ultimately, the reunion special was likely never interested in breaking new ground or reinventing anything. It exists purely as a reminder of the show that was, and to revel in that nostalgia – not to mention to entice new subscribers to HBO Max. However, that doesn’t make it entertaining or engaging. The executives behind it were clearly uncertain which of many concepts to go with, threw too many ideas at the fan and came up with something that feels overly long and meandering.