tv review

Friends: The Reunion Is an Extreme Friends Zone

Photo: Terence Patrick/Terence Patrick

Near the end of the long, long-anticipated Friends: The Reunion, when all six of the original Friends are sitting in that familiar, purple-tinted apartment with the picture frame around the peephole on the door, Courteney Cox makes a poignant statement.

“This will be the last time that we’re ever asked about the show as a group — that we will do this,” she says while seated beside a teary Jennifer Aniston. “We’re not going to do this again in 15 more years.”

As pointed out in an opening title card in the HBO Max special, which premieres tomorrow, May 27, this streaming event marks only the second time that the principal Friends cast members — Cox, Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, and Matthew Perry — have been in a room all together since the sitcom’s finale aired in 2004. Cox’s comment acknowledges the flip side of that fact: that if it took this long to get a Bing, a Tribbiani, a Buffay, a Green, and two Gellers to walk onto the old Warner Bros. soundstage at the same time, it’s unlikely it will happen again.

On more than one occasion, Friends: The Reunion reminds viewers that its existence, which has been discussed for almost as long as the original show was on the air, is a rarity. A second example: During a more formal Q&A segment moderated by James Corden, Kudrow is asked if she would contemplate doing another Friends episode or movie. She immediately says no while series co-creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman look on approvingly from their socially distanced seats in the audience. In other words, appreciate this instance of communal bonding over whether or not Rachel and Ross were on a break, kids, because after this one 104-minute limited-edition flashback, Friends is soooo over. Except, you know, not really, since all the episodes are on HBO Max and rerun on cable constantly. If we’ve learned one thing about Friends during the 17 years since it ended its original run on NBC, it’s that Friends will never really go away. That inescapable reality gives Friends: The Reunion a vibe that’s somehow simultaneously unsentimental and deeply nostalgic.

To be clear, this special absolutely embraces the seductive flashbackery that viewers tend to seek from reboots, reimaginings, and revisitations of their favorite shows. We get to see the Friends watch old clips and bloopers from Friends, and do table reads of scenes from past Friends episodes, and discuss Friends with Corden while sitting in front of the fountain from the Friends opening credits. Friends: The Reunion is an extreme Friends zone.

Because of the ubiquity of the series, all the reminiscing sort of takes you back to the 1990s and early 2000s — assuming you remember the 1990s and early 2000s — but also feels like an act of recollecting things that happened literally yesterday. The table-read segments take the sound and images of the cast in 2021, seated around a table reading old scripts, and bleed directly in and out of scenes from the original series in a way that emphasizes the blurriness of time. Did Phoebe freak out when she first witnessed Chandler and Monica hooking up back in 1999, when “The One Where Everybody Finds Out” first aired? Or was it last week, when that episode reran on Nickelodeon? Or is it actually happening now, as I stream this special on HBO Max? If you want to feel like time is a flat circle, forget True Detective. Just watch Friends: The Reunion.

The audience for Friends spans a wide age range and reaches across continents, and the reunion embraces that in a way that keeps it from feeling like an attempt to wallow in Gen X’s version of the good ol’ days. Fans from various countries pay tribute to the series, and some surprising guest stars whom HBO Max has specifically asked critics to keep quiet about show up to honor its legacy. (There’s also one semi-eyebrow-raising revelation about the relationship between two cast members. But critics are not supposed to reveal that, either.) As reunions go, the whole thing is warm, funny, entertaining, and a little too treacly at times — but that’s how Friends was, too, so it feels right.

When most of us say we’d love to see a specific TV show come back, what we really mean is that we want to see the characters together again and spend time in their company. Friends: The Reunion scratches that itch in a way that another episode or a Friends follow-up movie probably would not. This Central Perk homecoming gives everyone the space to revel in their adoration of one of the most successful sitcoms ever made without tacking on any new story or codas that would alter its place in the culture. Some of the best moments in it are the ones that capture the six stars hanging out and reminiscing in what seems to be an unscripted context.

One of the reasons Friends worked as well as it did is because the actors actually were friends, and that has not changed. Watching them walk through their old sets together and giggle about the fact that LeBlanc sometimes had a hard time hitting his mark conjures the same feelings many of us have had — in fact, may be actively having now, as the pandemic slowly eases — when we gather with old and dear friends who haven’t been together in a while. You’re grateful for the moment with them because you know such moments don’t happen often. Then again, there’s always the reruns.

Friends: The Reunion Is an Extreme Friends Zone