What to Watch Verdict
After more than 15 years, it's undeniably charming to see the cast of 'Friends' return to their old stomping grounds, even if the best part of this reunion are the clips from the show itself.
🦃Seeing the cast back together for the first time in years.
🦃The table reads of some of the show's classic moments.
🦃Lisa Kudrow's still-effervescent charm.
🦃The best parts of this reunion are the old show...not the reunion.
🦃James Corden's presence is unnecessary.
🦃At 104 minutes, it's overly busy and scattershot.
The first thing you need to know about Friends: The Reunion, airing on HBO Max starting today is that it is in no way a new episode of Friends. Even now, you may yet hold out some hope that within the 104-minute runtime of the special, there’s a table reading of a new episode or some script that was never used. And it is here that you should remove any such hope. Though the special is all about reliving the past as much as possible, and looking back fondly on some of the countless memories and moments that dotted one of the most popular American sitcoms ever to air, there’s nothing exactly new about it.
There is, instead, a general vibe of “be careful what you wish for”. The opening titles say that in the intervening 17 years since the series finale aired, the six eponymous pals have only been in the same room together once...until now. Off of that, we get a random assortment of bits, montages, reminiscences, and revivals, all placed together in a strangely off-kilter and formless way. If you wanted to see the six actors who brought Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe to life back together again, walking through the sets of the characters’ apartments, the Central Perk coffee shop, and saying a brief hello to random guest stars and being stumped by detailed questions about episodes of the show itself...well, Friends: The Reunion is for you. But the experience of this reunion is somewhat empty and airless.
Somehow, the grab-bag mentality of the special and the overarching nostalgia inherent in bringing these massively famous actors back for one last hurrah only makes the experience lifeless, too. Friends remains one of the most popular shows ever, even for generations of viewers who weren’t alive when it premiered (and who may well see the show as a relic of the 1990s), but there’s not even a bare-bones attempt to explore why the show has endured. The closest the special comes to this exploration is in a brief montage of fans around the world who comment on how the characters and their personalities transcended American culture or heritage. (There’s also a handful of celebrity talking-head segments, from the logical -- Reese Witherspoon chimes in, having appeared on the show herself -- to the inexplicable -- David Beckham is apparently a clean freak, just like Monica! ...Great?)
The special’s producer and director, Ben Winston, is best known for producing The Late Late Show with James Corden, so it’s no surprise that the English host/co-star of Cats serves as something of an emcee for a portion of Friends: The Reunion. Though the special opens with a long stretch in which each main cast member, one by one, enters the soundstage where they filmed the show to pick over details of the sets that they hadn’t thought of in years, or couldn’t believe they’d forgotten, etc., it eventually shifts to a faux-interview of sorts set directly in front of the fountain in which the actors filmed the iconic title sequence, with Corden asking the questions. Yes, everything from “What’s your favorite episode?” to “Tell me, really, were Ross and Rachel on a break?” gets posed to the very game cast.
Corden’s just one aspect of the special, though — there’s a few segments in which we watch the six performers do table-readings of some of the most iconic moments from Friends, such as Ross and Rachel’s first kiss or the moment when Phoebe first realized that Chandler and Monica were in a secret romantic relationship. It’s these moments that are perhaps most instructive to the key that made Friends work both at the time, and now: the impossible-to-replicate chemistry between these actors. (The best bit in the entire special is when Lisa Kudrow once again shouts out, “My eyes! MY EYES!” as Phoebe responds to Chandler and Monica hooking up. She hasn’t lost a comic beat, and also seems the most down-to-earth of the six castmates.) The reflections from each of the cast members — though it often feels like we’re primarily hearing from David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston — are interesting to a point, but only just. At one point, Schwimmer notes (no doubt correctly) that when Friends was at the zenith of its popularity, the only other five people he knew understood what he was going through were his co-stars and vice versa. We can all imagine, somewhat, how intense and oppressive that kind of superstardom can be, but we don't and never will know what it's like.
And that unfortunately speaks to the problem of having so many reminiscences and reflections of being on the set. Yes, most people who watch the special will have seen the 236 episodes of the original series, and possibly know many of those episodes inside and out. But a reunion special so heavily steeped in memories of what it was like to be super-famous, or to see a warped fashion show inspired by costumes from the show (featuring a series of models whose identities and costumes are frankly too weird to describe), feels like a 104-minute experience of being told, “Well, listen, you had to be there.”
Add to that the unavoidable reality that all of these actors have aged and look entirely different from how they did in early seasons. It’s perversely fun to cut between the current actors and their 1994 selves. (TV-history aficionados may be especially thrilled by two brief clips of 1994-era sitcoms that co-starred, respectively, Aniston and Matthew Perry. Both of these shows, had they been successful, would've made it so neither star could appear on Friends. The brief glimpses of these other shows are fascinating, but don't suggest we missed anything terribly special.). But seeing the disparity of nearly 30 years of aging is also a stark reminder that the actors in 2021 are a far cry from their earlier selves. Some element of this special feels like a vanity attempt to relive their own youth, if only for a few minutes. That said, it’s still no surprise that, when Corden asks the inevitable question of whether or not there could be a new episode or one-off event with the characters returning, Kudrow quickly and sharply says, “No.” And for good reason.
Because there’s such a mix-and-match mentality to Friends: The Reunion, there are some hits within. Some of the celebrity appearances are fun, and speak to the impact the show has had on more generations than just Generation X. (Even the inevitable new performance of “Smelly Cat” by Kudrow gets a surprising boost thanks to a performer best left unspoiled. Though Kudrow was likely aware who was joining her, the blend of awe and giddy delight on her face is extremely relatable.) And watching the cast perform scenes at a table reading -- thankfully by themselves, instead of having Corden read stage directions or something like that -- is as effective a reminder as the clips themselves of why Friends has remained so beloved for so long.
But that’s kind of the issue, isn’t it? The best part of Friends: The Reunion isn’t seeing the friends reunite (in part because you’re not watching the friends reunite, but the actors). It’s seeing well-chosen clips of the show that remind you why you’re here in the first place. The original show has managed to avoid feeling encased in amber; it’s not so dated in its depiction of popular culture and society that watching episodes from the mid-1990s isn’t a painful experience in 2021. But why watch the 2021 versions of these actors go through the motions of waving and smiling, and hugging each other again, instead of just streaming Friends itself on HBO Max? The emotions here -- because the waterworks start early enough for the performers — may be genuine, but they also feel heavily overdone, as in a final montage scored to a goofily slowed-down version of “I’ll Be There For You” that feels almost funereal. You’re better off just watching Friends — which you probably already have done if you’re even remotely invested in this special. It’s a better use of your time.
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.
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