Though it’s been “on a break” for over ten years, the frenzy for “Friends” is unending. The final episode aired in 2004, but streaming services have breathed new life into this ’90s sitcom, amassing a devout following of young viewers who watched (and re-watched) the reruns on Netflix.
For 10 seasons, “Friends” follows six young adults — Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Ross (David Schwimmer), Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) — and their antics in turn-of-the-century New York. The show’s enduring appeal is both opaque and obvious. On one hand, the titular friends seem to live in in the whitest neighborhood in New York City, and the material was notably clumsy in wading through its own homogeneity. At the same time, “Friends” endeared its viewers as a harmless sitcom with just enough dry wit to warrant an olive. It’s a show where characters’ quirks embellish routine but never substantively shift it — there’s comfort in stability.
In 2019, “Friends” left Netflix to be with HBO Max. The promotional material stirred rumors of a “Friends” reunion special with the cast, but the buzz fizzled after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed production. It just hadn’t been our day, week, month or even our year… until now.
On May 27, HBO Max released the “Friends” reunion special, or “The One Where They Get Back Together.” While other well-loved sitcoms took quarantine as an opportunity to reunite old castmates, the “Friends” special goes the extra mile by bringing everybody back to the show’s old sets. One-by-one, members of the main cast trickle into Monica and Rachel’s apartment. Watching a smiling LeBlanc softly dab Cox’s weepy eyes, it’s easy to remember why this show lasted as long as it did.
Yet, an opening intertitle reveals the actors have been in the same room all together only once since the show ended. Instead of making the special feel, well, special, this bit of context begets prickly questions — what happened between these actors, why don’t they hang out? It feels like a speed bump on the drive down memory lane — a road that, as it turns out, is winding and littered with gimmicks.
Though it has the right ingredients, the reunion comes together like scatterbrained tiramisu. The actors are spread pretty thin: reminisce on the set of the girls’ apartment, competing in a trivia contest à la “The One With the Embryos,” performing table reads of memorable scenes, watching old bloopers and chatting with host James Corden in front of a live audience with the fountain from the opening credits behind them. Corden, who played no part on the show, conducts the interview as though he’s preparing to audition for the role of a foghorn, asking tough, hard-hitting questions such as “Who has the loudest laugh?”. The interviews with Corden mine for pyrite, serving as a spindle to transition into whatever silly segment is next (here’s to you, Justin Bieber). Bieber’s starchy cameo is just one of the several celebrity features, which range from David Beckham to BTS to Malala Yousafzai.
The special’s most emotional moments return to the series’ roots, giving the main actors space to reminisce on the set of the girls’ apartment. Their shared experiences in rising to fame created a unique bond, and Schwimmer recalls, “Our family couldn’t relate. Our friends, our closest friends, couldn’t relate… the only people who really knew what it was like were the other five.” When they ask each other “how you doin’,” it feels right. They don’t need the frills.
“Friends” worked because it focused on the ensemble, but the reunion’s avowed levity strains some of the relationships. The elephant in the room is Perry’s struggle with drug addiction, and the actor alludes to the toll that the show took on his mental health. The actors stumble around darker subjects. The “Friends” reunion is more invested in celebrating the past than exploring its complexities. The sweet, if slightly treacly, tone will resonate with fans of the show, but if you’ve already bought the HBO Max subscription, it may be more satisfying to just watch the reruns.