The most shocking revelation of the “Friends” reunion might be that the actors — now six of the most famous in the world — never met until their first table read. From their very first moments swapping jokes and stories around the squashy chairs of Central Perk in 1993, the chemistry between Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer was so immediate and so natural that it became very easy for audiences to imagine not just that they were friends, but their friends, too. Recapturing that spark in a reunion special 17 years after the series finale without the smokescreens of their characters, though, would be another challenge entirely.
The special acknowledges this approximately one second in with a title card — scrawled in the “Friends” credits font, naturally — to inform us that, since the series finale, “the six cast members have been in a room all together only once … until today.”
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The stakes thus set, the Friends walk onto the show’s meticulously recreated set one by one, starting with a wide-eyed David Schwimmer and ending with a skittish Matthew Perry. Aniston, Cox and Kudrow still have an easy familiarity with each other that makes it clear that spending the Emmys together at Aniston’s home last year wasn’t completely unusual for them. LeBlanc, who demonstrated a canny self-awareness when playing a hyperbolic version of himself on Showtime’s “Episodes,” brings the most boisterous energy to the table from the moment he walks in to when he gleefully points at the message he left on the set wall after the finale (“I shit here — Matt LeBlanc”).
The special, directed by “Late Late Show With James Corden” producer Ben Winston, then boomerangs between these quieter moments of just the core cast, a few cutesy bits featuring guest stars I can’t mention (but you can probably guess), and a splashy live interview moderated by professional fanboy James Corden in front of a masked audience roaring its approval. The live-audience component is ostensibly why HBO Max held off on producing the special earlier, and yet throughout the reunion’s impressive run time of over an hour and a half, it also proves to be the least essential.
“Friends: The Reunion” was, of course, originally supposed to supplement the launch of HBO Max as a streaming service. More specifically, it was meant to celebrate HBO Max exclusively acquiring the entire series from Netflix, the streaming equivalent of putting its enemy’s head on a spike outside the castle. Instead, the pandemic put the special into infinite limbo — even as dozens of other shows like “Frasier,” “The Nanny” and “Happy Endings” staged virtual reunions for fun, charity, and just the hell of it. And yet HBO Max held out on “Friends,” determined to make it a bonafide in-person event that wouldn’t give producers panic attacks with every Zoom glitch.
Then again: HBO Max did manage to stage a smart, fun, surprisingly moving in-person reunion last November, which now makes for a fascinating counterpart to the overwhelmingly shiny, happy people of the “Friends” special.
When “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” cast reunited last November for the show’s 30th anniversary, it was fair to assume that it would follow in other reunions’ footsteps as a relatively harmless jaunt down memory lane. But in his role as host, Will Smith took a few cues from his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith by bringing the cast to a metaphorical “Red Table Talk” that made room for catharsis amidst all the fond remembrances.
They mourned the loss of James Avery, the actor who grounded so much of the show with such gravitas. They recalled the legacy of “Fresh Prince” as a successful Black sitcom that addressed racism and class issues in between its slapstick. Most impactful of all, though, the “Fresh Prince” reunion welcomed back Janet Hubert, the actor who originated the role of Aunt Viv and was recast with a noticeably lighter-skinned actor (Daphne Reid) after Smith and producers decided Hubert was too “difficult on set.” Now a movie star and father, Smith took the time to sit down with Hubert and ask her to share her side of the story, which Hubert did with admirable candor.
Smith and Hubert’s conversation is powerful, complex and, maybe most surprisingly of all, genuinely awkward. Here were two people serving up extratextual context for why the show looked like it did by confronting their pasts and each other’s role in them, with real willingness to speak and hear difficult truths.
“Friends: The Reunion” doesn’t have any interest in going down that kind of road — though for a moment, it almost seems possible it might. Perry has mentioned in the past about how his addiction struggles impacted his time on the show to the point that he had to enter rehab. The special ultimately declines to discuss any his troubled experience explicitly, but it nonetheless lingers around the margins with palpable unease. When his castmates talk about staying in touch with each other, he cracks a joke about how he doesn’t hear “from anyone” so dryly that it’s impossible to tell if it’s actually a joke. Later, as the rest of the cast laughs about the takes they messed up and how the audience reacted, Perry remembers how he felt every night “like I was going to die if they didn’t laugh,” and acknowledges that “it wasn’t healthy, for sure.” The segment lingers just long enough on this moment for Kudrow to respond with concern that they never knew that, at which point it cuts to the next nostalgia trip.
They wander around the set marveling at how small it feels now, give each other gentle grief for their inability to remember lines, and reveal the trinkets they swiped (a mug for Aniston, a cookie jar for Kudrow). They do a few intimate table reads of pivotal moments from episodes like “The One Where Everybody Finds Out” and “The One Where Ross Finds Out [That Rachel Likes Him].” Even in these short scenes, the actors manage to snap right back into their old rhythm with an almost spooky recall. (Aniston, it seems, can still recite most of her old lines off-book.)
In between these segments come insights from producer Kevin Bright and creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, as well as the aforementioned Corden weirdness that eventually devolves into a fashion show I can only describe as “unhinged.” More interesting and impressive is a montage dedicated to the international influence of “Friends” as it was translated and regurgitated around the world to the point that many fans — including the Korean boy-band sensation BTS, interviewed briefly here — used it to learn American English.
As per the special, the outsized influence of “Friends” was nothing but a good thing. People felt a kinship with these friends who treated each other like family. Women admired Monica’s willingness to propose to Chandler and Rachel’s decision to raise her and Ross’ baby without marrying him. A special guest star known for embracing her quirks thanks Kudrow for the character of Phoebe, who taught her that being “a little different” was okay.
The reunion is so insistent on the show being nothing but a benign joy, in fact, that it only made me think harder about all the ways it wasn’t. “Friends” famously included so few non-white characters in its version of New York City that most every subsequent sitcom trying to capture its appeal feels obligated to include a joke about it. The series featured a surprisingly progressive storyline about Ross’ lesbian ex-wife and new partner raising his son (neither of which factor into the reunion), but also included so many homophobic and transphobic jokes that it quickly became a cornerstone of Chandler’s personality and family history. These shortcomings have also been viewed billions of times around the world, and it would have been revealing to see the cast and crew reckon with its less sterling reputation now, too.
But “Friends: The Reunion” isn’t trying to be revealing, at least not about anything that thorny or unpleasant. It’s here to entertain, and to remind fans why they love the show (and that it’s now available to stream only on HBO Max). Digging in to its shortcomings would have made for a more interesting special, but it also wouldn’t have reflected the show itself, which largely left unpleasantries outside of its comically enormous apartments. “Friends” only ever tried to address a small slice of life; it’s not especially shocking that its long-awaited reunion special would do the same.
“Friends: The Reunion” premieres Thursday, May 27 on HBO Max.
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