Why 'Friends: The Reunion' should've been more confrontational

The cast of 'Friends' at Friends: The Reunion
(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

If you can cast your mind far back enough, you may recall that Friends: The Reunion was a special that the WarnerMedia empire has been touting for a long time. Back in November of 2019, months before the HBO Max streaming service launched, it was reported that a reunion special of some kind featuring the six leads of what remains one of the most popular TV series of all time was in development. The question by the time that HBO Max was unveiled to the world in May of 2020 wasn’t whether or not we’d ever see the Friends reunite, but when it would be safe enough for them to do so. In the interim, HBO Max wound up releasing another reunion special to another beloved 90s-era sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

That show’s reunion aired last fall, tying into the 30th anniversary of its premiere season. There are some basic similarities in the reunion specials for both of these shows: they were both hit sitcoms of the 1990s that aired originally on NBC and have since endured through the decades to new generations, and both are shows that vaulted its actors to bigger things. But The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion was a far more memorable and successful affair because its entire purpose for existing wasn’t to traffic in nostalgia. That special did something Friends: The Reunion chose not to do: get awkward and deal with the ensuing fallout.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is still one of the more delightful, high-concept sitcoms of the 1990s, with the setup being that Will Smith, playing an exaggerated version of his young self, is sent away from the rough streets of West Philadelphia (where he was born and raised, as the theme song helpfully details) to the tony neighborhoods of Bel-Air to live with his rich aunt and uncle and presumably get a safer upbringing. While there, he befriends his cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), as well as his younger cousin Ashley (Tatyana M. Ali), while finding a surrogate mom and dad in Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil (Janet Hubert-Whitten and Daphne Maxwell Reid, and the late James Avery). 

Will Smith and Janet Hubert-Whitten sit down to talk about 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'.

(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air may not have been quite the worldwide sensation that Friends is, but it’s got its fair share of memorable moments, many of them tackling thorny issues of race and representation. But the reunion special focused, in an extended segment, on a one-to-one conversation the now grown-up Smith (who since became one of the biggest movie stars in the world) has with his old ex-co-star Hubert-Whitten, who played Aunt Viv for the first three seasons of the series, before being replaced for reasons that wound up being more personal in nature. Smith, circa the waning days of 2020, is more circumspect and honest about his own mistakes as an actor and producer, and Hubert-Whitten doesn’t hold back in talking about how emotionally damaging and fraught the situation was for her, at home and at work.

Friends is not, to be fair, a show that ever had a major recasting -- it’s not like any of the six friends ended up being played by different actors throughout its 10-year run. But Friends: The Reunion rarely allows any hint of darkness about the behind-the-scenes story of the people who played Chandler, Ross, Joey, Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe. Just as the show itself has served as comfort food to audiences the world over, the presumption is that the special should be similarly comforting. The scattershot special features, sprinkled throughout, a handful of softball questions provided by late-night talk-show host James Corden. At one point, he throws it out to the socially distanced audience for questions, and when the first person asks the cast something they didn’t like about making the show, he mocks the questioner for being negative. (The resulting answer, in which David Schwimmer describes how immensely frustrating it was to have to film with a live monkey so frequently in the show’s early seasons, is one of the few that feels genuinely honest.)

While it’s unfair to presume that there would be a painful heart-to-heart about someone losing their job, there is sadly an easy avenue or two down which the reunion special could’ve traveled. It’s not casting specifically, though there is a tidbit that Louis Mandylor, the actor who ended up playing a guy Joey hires to be his double, was the other actor who nearly got hired as the actual Joey during the show’s first-season casting process. But while he remains the single funniest part of Friends, Matthew Perry has very publicly wrestled with substance abuse over the years. It’s a thorny topic, to be sure, but one that goes almost wholly uncommented-upon, even though Perry acknowledges in the special that he began to crave audience approval to a point where it was unhealthy (something Lisa Kudrow tells him none of the other cast members realized). It’s one of the few points in the special when Perry gets a word in edgewise generally speaking -- Schwimmer and Aniston seem to do most of the talking throughout. 

The cast of 'Friends' sits and reads parts of old scripts.

(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

But there’s not much more explored in terms of Perry’s past, or really anything beyond surface-level laughs about the experience of being massively famous and not being prepared for being massively famous. In a story LeBlanc tells of seeing a live cable-news feed of the six stars’ houses, he laughs about realizing that his roof at the time was a mess. The closest the special gets to sharing something potentially shocking comes late, when both Schwimmer and Aniston say that they harbored serious romantic feelings for each other in the show’s first season or two, but because they were each in relationships of their own, they never pursued anything. If nothing else, it’s a nice moment for fans who can bolster any reading they might have of the earliest seasons and see how those true feelings translated to fictional sparks. That, however, isn’t a terribly edgy or bravely honest thing to share. Chandler Bing was usually the chattiest of the Friends, so it's perhaps most noticeable that Perry says the least throughout the special.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion is structured loosely, as is Friends: The Reunion. Both specials center around the original cast members returning to the main set in which their shows were filmed, and both specials feature the revival of some memorable gags, whether it’s Ribeiro dancing to “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones or the cast of Friends taking part in a quiz to determine their arcane knowledge about personal subjects. Both of these specials are, at their core, about reviving the audience’s collective memory of why they loved the shows in the first place. But Friends: The Reunion had an opportunity to be more confrontational and open about its production history, or at least the struggles its cast members may have had throughout the years. In the end, it’s just about maintaining the comfort-food illusion of the original series, but...well, the original series does that well enough. Why even have a reunion if you don’t at least acknowledge the good and the bad?

Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.