The "Friends" Reunion Feels Like A Missed Opportunity

A scripted version of what happened to the actors behind these archetypal characters would have made for more compelling TV.

In August 2019, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of Friends — a show that had an entire plotline about Chandler’s transgender parent’s possible penis — I wrote about how the show sucks. As with much of what I write on this now-cursed site (my impact!), I was right, but my inbox was bloated with reader mail for weeks, ranging from polite dissent (“you’re pathetic”) to the normal things you’d send to a stranger on the internet (“go fuck yourself you fucking pees of shit”).

You can boo me all you want. I’m still right. But still, Friends once averaged 25 million viewers a week, and even now — as host James Corden told the cast — it’s been watched over 100 billion times across all platforms. I’ve lost this fight, I admit. People are also still wearing Crocs, there’s only so much I can do.

So naturally, I sat down to watch Friends: The Reunion, which premieres Thursday on HBO Max, with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s not a new episode, it’s not scripted content, and it’s not necessary. But I’m not so proud; I can admit when I’m wrong. I thought the Friends reunion would be mealymouthed sap (a lot of it is) and that they’d conveniently sidestep elements of their history that betray the show’s rampant sexism, anti-gay, fatphobic, and anti-trans jokes, but I was surprised to be so touched by the actual people who made this wretched show. There I was, clutching my little Grinch heart, feeling it growing in size as I watched adults cry over how one of them couldn’t remember their lines and hid their script in the sink.

The Friends special, which inexplicably borders on a two-hour runtime, is divided into three sections. First there’s the reunion part, where the cast sits in the old set, watches scenes from the show, and reads scripts together. The second part is a full-on documentary about the show, getting into the casting, the details about what jokes landed and didn’t, and how the writers decided to let Chandler and Monica fall in love. The last (and worst) part features the six cast members sitting in front of the infamous fountain for a brief interview before a live studio audience, just like the old days.

It’s fine, formatwise. But frankly, the best way to watch Friends: The Reunion is as a psychodrama about the actors. It’s been decades since they were on the show together, the finale aired in 2004, and nothing in their lives looks the same. Aniston never quite became the movie star she was supposed to be, while her personal life dominated the tabloids. Matt LeBlanc’s failed Joey spinoff was conveniently left out of the documentary, and he does increasingly resemble his Episodes character, an aging television star, more and more. Courteney Cox appeared in Dirt, a show you’ve probably never heard of. David Schwimmer seems fine, and still looks like Robert Kardashian, all hangdog face. Lisa Kudrow’s work on The Comeback still hasn’t been appropriately lauded. As for Matthew Perry, he appeared anxious and off-kilter in the reunion, speaking sparingly.

What would have been better than Friends: The Reunion? Frankly, a conversation between the six of them without James Corden and his flight attendant maroon suit, one where they could talk about the enormous impact the show had on them and the trajectory of their lives forevermore. Imagine exiting the Friends machine in your mid-thirties, the weight of everyone’s expectations on you, waiting for what you’ll do next, eagerly anticipating your inevitable decline? How could anything you do come remotely close to Friends?

How much did this show change them in ways that maybe they didn’t want?

The first 10 minutes of the reunion is just the six of them entering the set at different times, looking around, sitting in their old armchairs, touching all the fake fruit on the table, hugging, and bursting into tears. It’s a charming kind of nostalgia, but that’s the strength of Friends in its entirety: It feels familiar, unthreatening, hopeful.

There are a few new tidbits of information, some of which are embargoed. Kudrow talks about her inability — still! — to watch the show, horrified by her own performance, showing how impostor complexes abound even for one of the most recognizable faces on television. Perry shares how he would sweat when the audience didn’t laugh, and how much his self-worth was tied up in the show’s success, and more specifically, his success on the show. How much did this show change them in ways that maybe they didn’t want?

Still, the show is fan service in the way that all reunion specials should be. No need to drag another season out of these people — just let them sit on a couch and watch old bloopers and admire their smooth, poreless, twentysomething-year-old skin. I relished seeing Janice, Gunther, and Richard, who somehow looks the exact same and yet I have not once been given an opportunity to ride that mustache straight into the sun. Seems unfair, if you ask me.

But then again, a good chunk of the reunion feels like a fever dream. Not fewer than six times did I stare at whatever was happening on my screen and say, out loud to myself, “Am I on acid? Did someone give me acid?” There are so many random celebrity cameos. David Beckham shows up. Lady Gaga sings “Smelly Cat” with Lisa Kudrow accompanied by a gospel choir.

And then Malala (yes, that one) and her best friend sit together recounting their favorite Friends scene, the one where Monica and Ross do a choreographed dance routine to get on television. The two women laugh about their shared pleasure in this scene, but they sidestep the punchline of the whole thing: that Monica was once so fat that it was Ross who had to be hucked into the air like in Dirty Dancing.

And that’s the trouble with something like Friends: The Reunion. In order to paint the most accurate portrait of the show, you have to talk about where it failed. And god, did it fail. There’s little mention of its worst tropes — the racist and sexist writers room, Ugly Naked Guy, Helena Handbasket, the time they let Joey and Rachel date (god, they should take out a full-page apology ad in the New York Times for that).

A scripted reunion would have been a mistake, but a scripted version of what happened to the real-life actors behind all these archetypal characters would have been the decade’s most compelling television. Friends had one of the most notoriously copacetic casts in the ’90s — the actors ate lunch together every day, and when they were up for contract negotiations, they all held out to make sure they each received $1 million per episode, threatening to all walk if they weren’t paid equally.

In order to paint the most accurate portrait of the show, you have to talk about where it failed. 

But a more fascinating story is the one you can write yourself. They were best friends and colleagues years ago. Everything is so different now. Sure, they keep in touch, but how much could you? Jennifer’s so famous she can’t go to the store without being photographed; meanwhile, no one has seen Perry in a project since 2017. How well do they know each other now, really? When you run into someone you loved from an old job, an apartment you don’t live in anymore, a phase of your life that you’ve long left, don’t you feel that nagging pang of loss? It’s nice to see them again, but it reminds you of how you’re in the good old days no longer.

Toward the end of the special, Corden asks Kudrow if she’s ever considered doing a scripted reunion episode. She rebuffs him. “They ended the show very nicely, everyone's lives are very nice,” she said. “They would have to unravel all those good things for there to be stories. I don’t want anyone’s happy ending unraveled.” A better Friends reunion would’ve done just that — complicated the stories of these actors thrust into a machine that hasn’t since functioned the same. But Friends was always about wish fulfillment, about the unrealistic possibility of staying friends with the same group of people for a decade despite relationships, babies, and breakups. The lack of tension is explicitly why it sucked. But in the reunion, they at least added wrinkles to the real-life version of Friends, the one happening on a soundstage, the story no one’s ever really going to know in full. ●


An earlier version of this post misstated when this article was published.

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