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The empty comfort of Friends: The Reunion

Could this be any more pointless?

All six of the main cast from Friends take a selfie during the Friends reunion special.
The Friends reunion is mostly navel gazing, which is probably what we should have expected.
Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Friends has aged brilliantly and not well at all. To celebrate the series in 2021 with a reunion special is almost too tricky to attempt.

It’s really the pilot, which aired on NBC on September 22, 1994, that provides the best précis for the whole show. “The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate” starts with a loose sequence of random people we’ve never met just hanging out in a coffeehouse, talking about dating and weird dreams.

By the end of that sequence, we know that Chandler is kind of a hapless jokester with mommy issues, Joey’s a wiseass, Monica has a date that night (later revealed to be Paul the Wine Guy), hangdog Ross’s wife has come out as a lesbian and left him, and Phoebe’s kind of an oddball, cleansing people’s auras. Adorable spoiled Rachel has arrived in her wedding dress, having left Barry at the altar. Ross obviously has a huge crush on her. That’s the show, right there.

The episode is astonishingly funny. The jokes land from the start, every line reading hilarious; as is rarely the case with TV pilots, it takes almost no time to start laughing. The people are beautiful and also pretty normal, not totally unlike a group you might bump into anywhere in Greenwich Village.

From the vantage point of 2021, other aspects stand out. The six lead cast members — Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer — are very white, and young, and sexy. Many scenes in the pilot read as kind of misogynistic and homophobic. None of those characteristics would change over the next decade, as Friends became a stratospheric hit and enjoyed a 10-season run; some of the more troubling ones would get worse.

But that’s Friends: a perfect time capsule of the late ’90s and early aughts, a time before social media and smartphones, dating apps, and streaming services. A time when 30 million people might regularly sit in front of their TVs simultaneously and tune in to the same station, then talk to one another about what they saw all week while waiting for the next installment.

Back then, it was still edgy to network executives to have a female character who sleeps with a man on the first date. It was not typical for a two-bedroom apartment in the Village to be within reach of an out-of-work actor and a guy with some kind of nebulous data-processing job, but Joey and Chandler’s place wasn’t so luxurious that it was distracting. (The answer to how Monica and Rachel afforded their absurdly beautiful apartment across the hall is canon: rent control.)

And the show was a bona fide phenomenon, sparking lightning that Friends: The Reunion tries to bottle. Originally slated to drop on May 27, 2020, to coincide with the launch of the HBO Max streaming service, the reunion special was delayed by the pandemic — its planned recording date was March 23 — and is now arriving on the service a year later, to the day.

The special is not another episode of Friends; cast members have been adamant that they don’t want to continue the story in a way that might ruin people’s memories of their characters’ happy endings. (Kudrow succinctly explains this logic once again in the special, with the faintest hint of weariness at the idea.) Instead, it’s part documentary, part “exclusive” peek at the cast reminiscing together, part clip show, part collection of tributes sent in by celebrities and fans, and part panel discussion, which is moderated, for whatever reason, by actor and late-night host James Corden. Clocking in at just under an hour and 45 minutes, it’s a chance to marinate in carefully curated nostalgia.

All six Friends cast members sit on couches and chairs, smiling and talking.
The cast talk about their memories against the backdrop of a fountain just like the one in the opening credits to the show.
Terence Patrick/HBO Max

There is, at most, maybe one big fan-service admission (that I won’t spoil here). Pretty much everything else is a rehash of stories that have already been told (largely in Vanity Fair’s 2014 oral history of the show) — not that they’re not fun to hear again. Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane recount the uphill battle of getting the show on the air, in an era when an ensemble sitcom about 20-somethings in New York was still considered a gamble. They talk about casting the show, witnessing its meteoric rise, and trying to decide how it would end.

There’s footage of the friends themselves walking around the series’ most memorable sets — Joey and Chandler’s apartment, Rachel and Monica’s apartment, and Central Perk — rebuilt by Warner Bros. (which originally produced the series for NBC) on the studio’s Burbank lot, on Stage 24, where Friends filmed from season two onward. In the living room at Monica and Rachel’s, they talk about what it was like to be on the show, play a (familiar) game, and welcome a few special guests. And during the panel discussion, filmed live in April in front of a masked audience, they answer softball questions about their experience being on the show.

All six say they still keep in touch, some more intermittently than others — according to the special’s opening text, the whole group has only been in the same room once since Friends wrapped 17 years ago. Presumably, that occasion is the one that Aniston used to launch an Instagram account in October 2019.

Other than this photo, we haven’t seen them all together either, which makes for some interesting observations, especially if you (like I, a “geriatric millennial”) spent your teens seeing at least the women on the series as the epitome of beauty and style. Perry, at 51, is the youngest of the bunch, and Kudrow is the oldest at 57. The women look younger than the men; Schwimmer most resembles his ’90s self, while LeBlanc has put on weight and gone handsomely gray, and a subdued Perry, who publicly struggled with addictions during the show, has more visibly aged.

What these actors looked like mattered during Friends’ run — their appearances were part of the public discourse, with Aniston’s haircut reaching iconic status — so it’s hard not to notice now. And even though all six cast members have had fruitful post-Friends TV careers and haven’t exactly been hiding, seeing them together re-emphasizes something that the young Gen Xers and older millennials who grew up watching the show are learning to accept: We’re getting older, too.

That the cast is aging is easy to forget, since Friends has been airing in syndication for years and is now on permanent loop on one streaming platform or another. For those watching today, they’re frozen in time.

Friends is popular even among people who were barely alive to see the show during its first go-round, a fact underlined if you poke around on TikTok under the hashtag #friendstok or #friendsTV. The reunion special features a series of video postcard-style tributes from young people all over the world. Some of them credit Friends with getting them through difficult times, or giving them the confidence to seek happy relationships. Malala Yousafzai, the 23-year-old activist and Nobel Prize honoree, appears with her best friend to talk about how much she loves the show.

Few if any of these younger fans would have watched the show breathlessly from week to week, the way people my age and a little older did. Few would have experienced the finale the way 52 million people did. Corden says in the special that Friends has been viewed across a variety platforms more than 5 billion times in the years since it ended in May of 2004.

Friends was and is a comet of a show, the sort of work that comes around only once in a blue moon and may never come around again. (It’s impossible to imagine, 17 years from now, a studio ponying up whatever Warner Bros. spent on this special for any currently airing TV series, let alone a sitcom.)

Five of the cast sit on a couch, leaning forward eagerly.
There’s a lot of familiarity in Friends: The Reunion.
Terence Patrick / HBO Max

And that’s the purpose of Friends: The Reunion: to give fans a nearly two-hour bath in their favorite world, or some version of it. That’s why not many truly revealing anecdotes about Friends — anecdotes that also situate the series in the late 1990s — come up in the special, or are hinted at only obliquely. The public image machine is as tight as ever.

We get sideways reminders that Aniston was married to Brad Pitt, that Perry dated Julia Roberts for a while, that Schwimmer hated working with Marcel the monkey. But we don’t hear about how Schwimmer reportedly mobilized the cast to form a tiny collective bargaining unit, leading to their $1 million per episode salaries in the final two seasons. Or about the sexual harassment lawsuit one writer brought against the show after its conclusion.

We see Perry admit that he felt like a miserable failure if he didn’t get a laugh from the studio audience, and see the cast’s concern, but we don’t hear him address whether he thinks that feeling contributed to his drug and alcohol struggles. Kudrow has spoken publicly about her body image issues while she was working on the show, but it doesn’t come up in the special. There isn’t much engagement with Friends’ legacy or cultural import, beyond people still loving it. The cast and creators don’t confront the show’s oversights, or whether there are elements of it they regret (a topic, for instance, that the Always Sunny in Philadelphia creators have discussed). Even the cast’s post-Friends acting careers are brushed aside; Joey, LeBlanc’s two-season spinoff, goes unmentioned.

Because who cares, really? The charm of this reunion special is that it is comfort viewing, pitched at a level to suit those who already rely on Friends for comfort. Rewatching episodes on an endless loop holds a wonderful predictability — I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, it really is pleasant — in that you know you’ll laugh, and there’s no uncertainty about what will happen. The team behind the special is well aware that this is how many, if not most, of Friends’ fans experience the series in 2021. They’re just leaning into it.

To be clear: I really enjoyed watching Friends: The Reunion. I’m of the microgeneration that talks about where we were when we watched the series finale, and it was fun to revisit that moment with people I feel like I know.

But my pleasure in watching was hollow and kind of sleepy. I didn’t learn anything interesting, and I wasn’t left with much to think about. The special is curiously empty, aside from some touching moments of camaraderie and affection between the cast members, and the potential discomfort of realizing we’re all getting older. To really dig into what Friends means and meant and tells us about ourselves then and now — to assess what Friends truly is — might have unearthed some uncomfortable truths.

Instead, Friends: The Reunion is a piece of streaming content that exists to reinforce its own existence, a special for a special’s sake. It’s a way for a big company to capitalize on popular IP it owns and can’t reboot or sequel-ize in any other way. It’s fat-free red meat for fans, tasty and inconsequential. And because it tickles a very particular spot on my brain, I’m happy to gobble it right up. In that way, I guess, it’s an almost perfect encapsulation of 2021.

Friends: The Reunion is streaming on HBO Max.

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