The One Where the ‘Friends’ Reunion Is a Disaster

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It’s apparently cool to not like Friends. Maybe that’s always been true.

It has seemed like it since the show launched in 1994 and became a television juggernaut that ran for 10 seasons, made six people ungodly amounts of money, introduced any number of referential lines of dialogue into the mainstream lexicon—“pivot!”—and remained, still 17 years later, the most popular and commercially successful show in the world.

The series’ 200-plus episodes entered the streaming arms race like the atomic bomb, launching bidding wars for platform rights. In 2018, Netflix paid $100 million to keep it for a year. After that, WarnerMedia dropped a reported $425 million to take the rights back, but only for five years.

That popularity and success have been met with sneers from cynical culturati through it all, from the series’ heyday omnipresence—its status as appointment viewing, the terrorization of “The Rachel,” the watercooler debate over whether they were “on a break”—to its relentless reruns and now the pomp surrounding this week’s Friends: The Reunion special on HBO Max.

Friends is a sitcom that, according to a stat listed during the reunion, has been watched 100 billion times across all platforms. That kind of stratospheric impact doesn’t land without kicking up some aggrieved snobs.

The backlash was as annoying then as it is now. So when tweets started popping up in the lead-up to the special boasting the provocative opinion that Friends isn’t as good as everyone thinks it is, it was as insufferable as it was inevitable. It’s like the pop-culture opinion version of cicadas, littering the zeitgeist every few years on an almost reliable schedule—and, in the end, little more than an ugly nuisance that the rest of us just have to ignore to enjoy ourselves.

I mention all of this because, on Thursday, Friends: The Reunion finally airs on HBO Max. The one-hour-and-45 minute affair will likely have the Friends battle lines re-drawn, as ruthless as a Thanksgiving Day football fight for the Geller Cup.

Credit where it’s due, HBO Max does a stand-up job making the whole thing seem like a huge deal—the kind of deal that could be a boon for its subscriber base. The opening act plays out amid such astonishment that this is all even happening, it’s almost as if a stunned Janice is constantly shrieking, “Oh. My. God.”

And yet…it’s also a misguided, confusing mess: stale when it’s not overly sentimental and self-congratulatory, relying on distracting stunts in place of authentic fun. I fear it will only feed those anti-Friends blowhards because it leans into the very qualities they gripe about. The special is earnest to a fault and flooded with the insular show references that could drive a naysayer insane.

Then again, a big double banging of the fists to the naysayers. This is a Friends reunion special. Who is it for, if not the fans?

But, you see, that is the biggest issue here. After watching the entire thing, I still don’t know who would be blown away by the special. To clarify, I’m a massive fan and fervent defender of the show. Perhaps that’s why I was so bored.

They ignored darker, more emotional elements of the show’s run, like Perry’s addiction issues and how the cast handled it, the series’ racial blindspots, or the backlash to certain plot ideas (Rachel and Joey?)

I wonder how many people still think that this is a scripted reunion and Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer are reviving Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross for a new episode or a TV movie or, at the very least, some sort of new sketch or scene. This is not that.

It is the first time the six cast members have been on TV together since the series ended in 2004. Title cards at the opening of the special are set to morose music that suggests we’re about to watch a biopic about a cherished cast that was not only estranged, but all tragically killed. They alert us that this group has been in a room together just once during those 17 years.

The marketing for the reunion has promoted that factoid often and without a hint of strangeness, as if 17 years isn’t an absurd amount of time for good friends to stop hanging out. Of course, there wasn’t a reported $2.5 million each on the table before.

To earn that money, the six leads were forced to sit down with James Corden. They answer questions about the series that are familiar to anyone who has watched any of the cast members on any late-night show in the last two decades: Questions about their auditions, about their favorite episodes, about when they knew they hit it big, about whether they’d ever do a revival. (They won’t.)

The staging of the special is thrilling, placed in front of the fountain where the original title credits were shot. It is truly surreal to see the six friends together again. The conversation, however, is less stimulating. Lots of “we’re a family” and how, upon seeing each other, they “fell right back into it.” In fact, they’ve done nearly this very thing before with all present except Schwimmer, who was working abroad. It was just five years ago, when they gathered to answer the same questions, that time asked by Andy Cohen during a James Burrows tribute.

Creators Marta Kaufman, David Crane, and Kevin Bright detail the inception of the show and tell the stories of how each actor was cast. But they skip over the juicy bits that have become common knowledge over the years, like how Facts of Life star Nancy McKeon and King of Queens’ Leah Remini were close to being cast as Monica, who was initially written with Janeane Garofalo in mind. (Cox, who was being pursued as Rachel, campaigned herself to play Monica instead and got the role.) Or that Craig Bierko was teed up to play Chandler in case Matthew Perry, who was already tied to a pilot, wouldn’t become available.

They ignored darker, more emotional elements of the show’s run, like Perry’s addiction issues and how the cast handled it, the series’ racial blindspots, or the backlash to certain plot ideas (Rachel and Joey?). Nothing particularly dramatic or untoward was discussed.

In fact, and especially if you’re a fan who has paid attention to what’s been written about the show and its cast over the years, there may only be one actual, bona fide revelation—but we are forbidden from discussing it until after the special premieres. (Yes, even the Friends reunion has a spoiler embargo…)

There are clips of iconic episodes and blooper reels—in other words, more stuff that most fans have already seen. This special has been billed as one of the most anticipated entertainment events of all time, a multimillion-dollar lynchpin to the success of a major streaming service. Yet it plays like the bonus material you might get on a DVD box set purchased 20 years ago.

It’s also a misguided, confusing mess: stale when it’s not overly sentimental and self-congratulatory, relying on distracting stunts in place of authentic fun.

The much-mocked roster of guest stars—content creator Jarret Wieselman : “the most random collection of names since Renée Zellweger’s Oscar acceptance speech”—largely appeared in clip packages discussing their favorite moments over the years.

Reese Witherspoon still can’t believe she got to hear Matt LeBlanc deliver his “how you doin’?” line. David Beckham most identifies with Monica because he’s a clean freak. Malala Yousafzai (???) is “totally a Joey,” with a hint of Phoebe, and her favorite moment is “The Routine.”

The biggest celebrity cameos were reserved for, once again, moments I’m not allowed to spoil. They’re fun! They’re distracting, though. And they misfire at what should be the target appeal of this special. As seemingly pointless as so much of this is, there are genuinely nostalgic, entertaining, and even emotional moments.

Fan-favorite guest stars appear, from Tom Selleck down to the barber shop quartet that delivered a singing telegram from Ross at Rachel’s office. The beginning and the end of the special bookend the proceedings with an almost giggle-inducing sincerity that, in hindsight, is actually nice.

You see the cast arrive one by one to the recreated Friends set, each actor in more tears than the one before. Different props trigger different memories and it’s a blast to watch them casually reminisce in broken sentences and half stories.

Whether it’s James Corden, journalists, or fans, there’s not a question from an outsider’s point of view about their time on the show that could possibly still be interesting at this point. But watching the six actors pal around and tease each other about how Cox used to write her lines on the kitchen table and on prop fruit, or zero in on anecdotes that couldn’t be more mundane (the placement of a support beam on the set, for example), has a fishbowl appeal.

Short of a scripted reunion, I think that’s what fans want most: a voyeur’s gaze into one of the most famous sextets TV has ever produced, rendered genuine and human through the touching experience of being together again. To see, once and for all, that they’re really friends.

It’s at times uncomfortable and uncanny, like when someone throws you a surprise party and it’s all very overwhelming. But someone is filming you and asking if you’re loving every second, so you plastic-grin to the camera and over-effuse about how wonderful everything is. That kind of embarrassed appreciation is what a special like this should strive for.

Another surprise highlight is the cast doing a table read of some of the show’s most iconic scenes, like when Monica gets stung by the jellyfish, when Phoebe sees Monica and Chandler hooking up for the first time, and Ross and Rachel’s first kiss. Kudrow kills her, “My eyes! My eyes!” line reading. And Aniston and Schwimmer might bring you to tears again.

It’s surreal to hear the lines delivered in almost the exact cadence with the same crack timing as they were all that time ago, though from the mouths of actors who have aged as the dialogue has taken on a life of its own in pop-culture history.

But in an event that was so much about the outside experience of Friends—the fame, the burning questions from fans—these were moments actually about the work, in a way that felt like the treat the rest of the show was not.

I wish the reunion was as emotionally charged as HBO Max’s recent one for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which paid tribute to the late James Avery and featured Will Smith and departed cast member Janet Hubert working through their years of trauma. Maybe that’s not the Friends vibe, which should theoretically be fine. The issue with the reunion, however, is that it seemed not to know what that Friends vibe even is.