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Friends: The Reunion, the multi-million-dollar HBO Max not-new-episode of the massive and beloved NBC sitcom, raises a lot of big questions, not through what it explores but by what it ignores. You’re going to do some thinking here, about the nature of friendship, about the passage of time, but mostly, about why any of this is happening.
And you will start right away: five seconds in, text in the show’s iconic font informs us that since the finale, the six main cast members have only been in the same room once. You think wow, and then you think wait. Once? Since 2003? There are circles of friends from jobs I’ve long forgotten, people I don’t think about all that often, who I can rely on seeing at a wedding once a year. The six people who went through this experience together, the only six people who understand what it was like to be that famous in that media ecosystem, haven’t all seen each other but once in 17 years? How? Why? Is there even a group text?
You will not get an answer in Friends: The Reunion’s mammoth 105-minute running time, but you will search every frame for it. Even the ones with Justin Bieber.
Friends is still globally massive in a way few television shows have ever been, and it’s because—in its heavily-polished, stylized and wholly unrealistic way—it depicted something no show had yet tried: those post-college years, your tribal phase, where you’ve moved away from your family of origin and not yet settled down to start your own, when as co-creator David Crane says here, “your friends are your family.” The show premiered three months after I graduated college and moved to New York to start that phase of my life. I watched it every Thursday night with the tribe I was assembling, and we would clap four times at the appropriate moment in “I’ll Be There For You.” I assumed I was the Chandler of the group, but in retrospect, I was probably more a Ross with a Phoebe rising. Apartment size and bowling-shirt budget notwithstanding, Friends felt very true to my life in 1994.
Friends: The Reunion feels very true to my life in 2021, in that I wish James Corden weren’t in it. He’s in charge of the panel-discussion portions of the show, filmed in front of the iconic fountain—every seven seconds there is something new and iconic—and while we do not expect to take on an Oprah-style deep analysis of these six people’s relationships, the presence of this giant toddler in a velvet suit makes it clear: we’re not even going to try.
As with this year’s The Real World Homecoming, much of the early business involves the cast returning to the set one by one and saying “Wow.” David Schwimmer first (moderately emotional), followed by Lisa Kudrow (holding it together), followed by Jennifer Aniston (crying her Aveeno face cream off). Matt LeBlanc arrives, silver-haired and paunchy, which I only point out to inform you that Matt LeBlanc can really pull off silver-haired and paunchy. Throughout the show, Matt LeBlanc displays the untroubled mind of the never-not-handsome. His life is fundamentally unlike ours. Courteney Cox comes next, and it is here that I will mention that Courteney Cox was the big name in the cast when the pilot was shot, and that was still mostly from the Bruce Springsteen video, lest the kids forget.
Matthew Perry shows up last.
The six of them back on the set feels familiar and soothing, if not particularly comfortable. Aniston says that once they were all there, “we fell right back into our old relationship, like we always do,” which...we have learned they don’t always do, because even the broadest and most generous interpretations of “always” do not mean “for the second time since R. Kelly’s ‘Ignition’ remix.” Everyone shares special memories that they’re the only one who seems to remember. Kudrow insists to James Corden that the gang stays in touch, but even this feels like it might not hold up in court. “When we call or text,” she says, “the other person picks up.” Perry counters “I don’t hear from anyone!”
Corden does not push on that one, but does get into how many people have watched Friends around the world. The figures are into the billions, so astronomical that they are impossible to picture or tease any meaning out of, other than “that is many.” You want to know how big Friends was? I’ll tell you how big Friends was: people know the words to the second verse of the theme song.
The Rembrandts do not make an appearance, but Malala does, among a sea of cameos I will not spoil except to say that Mr. Heckles is hanging in there. There are scenes of the gang reading old scripts of key moments in the show’s history. There is casting dish: who almost blew it, who was contractually bound to a mid-season replacement CBS sitcom, who was already booked in a pilot about luggage handlers at LAX in the future. There is talk of David Schwimmer not wanting to pursue television after a negative experience on a show he’d just done, which led me to IMDB and now has me wondering how dark and chaotic the set of Blossom could have been. There are the creators talking about how Matt LeBlanc hadn’t done much television before the Friends pilot, which is unforgivable TV 101 erasure.
There is a quick moment with Elliott Gould and Christina Pickles, the show’s Mr. and Mrs. Geller, who talk about how magic the set was, and how they began to feel like the cast’s real parents. “In fact,” Christina Pickles makes a point of saying, “we used to worry about them a lot.” This is a moment that rings very true.
In one of the few present-day Matthew Perry moments, he says “I felt like I was going to die if the studio audience didn’t laugh. And that’s not healthy for sure, but if I said a line and they didn’t laugh, I would sweat and just go into convulsions.” Kudrow says she didn’t know he was going through that, and he says, “Yes. Every night.” A perfect opening to talk about something real and honest and serious, so of course we go right into a segment about how much the audience screamed when Monica woke up in bed with Chandler.
It is impossible not to notice what we are being asked not to notice. Perry is frequently framed out of group shots. He is often hidden behind other cast members’ heads, and in at least one significant group scene, he’s not there at all. Schwimmer seems like he’s really stepping up with the quips and asides, as though he knows he needs to fill a void.
According to unnamed sources quoted in The Sun, the explanation for some noticeably slurred speech is that Perry had a dental procedure on the day of the reunion, which opens up more questions, like: if whole CBS sitcoms can be scuttled to make way for the first season of Friends, can’t a root canal or a reunion special get pushed a couple weeks? If a cast member was so fragile at the peak of the show that he fell apart when a joke wouldn’t land, why put him on camera now, in this condition, in this vicious social media landscape? I want to believe the best, I want a very talented and much-loved actor to get and be and stay healthy, and one cannot really address the speculation without implicitly speculating oneself, which I will not do. It is a real Christina Pickle. I just hope he’s okay.
They had an absolutely blinding level of fame in the ‘90s, these six people. “Nobody can prepare you for it,” Aniston says. Schwimmer agrees: “Nobody was going through what we were going through except us.” Family was supportive, friends were helpful, but these six people saw things you and I never will. They were like astronauts. And though they seem to get along well, one gets the impression that when the show's original run ended, they were finished. Corden asks them what their characters would be doing right now, and none of them really has an answer. Ross would still be working with bones, is about as deep as any of them manages to get. Malala has done more thinking about this than they have. By the time the credits roll, you know they won’t do this again.
Which leads me to the biggest question: why do this at all? Obviously none of them needs the money. Clearly HBO Max has enough content. I can’t say “don’t watch it,” but I will say “send some positive energy out into the universe afterwards.”
There is a lot to enjoy in Friends: The Reunion, but at the end, you’re left with a lot of troubling questions. You arrive at only one solid answer: sometimes the way to be there for someone is to leave them alone.
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