The “Friends'' reunion special, which brings back the cast of the much-beloved ‘90s sitcom, opens with the six cast members walking gingerly onto the show’s reconstructed set, marveling at the memories forged in its ludicrously large apartments and perfectly third-place-ish café, Central Perk. “Look at all of us,” Matthew Perry, who played the witticism-loaded Chandler Bing, says to his five co-stars as they wander around, looking at props and furniture.
It’s a moment where six people pause and reflect on how they became larger than life — both as people and as tentpoles holding up a giant entertainment property.
At its peak, “Friends” wasn’t as much a blockbuster as it was a cultural touchstone, dominating discourse over water coolers, on magazine covers and at hair salons from its debut until its final episode in May 2004. The half-hour ensemble sitcom — which starred Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer alongside Perry — was a staple of NBC’s Thursday night lineup, landing in the year-end Nielsen Top 10 for each season of its existence and attracting more than 52 million viewers for that 2004 finale as well as its post-Super Bowl episode in 1996.
The “Friends” reunion is a throwback to the era of May sweeps, a pre-summer television “event” designed to bring in huge numbers of viewers that would normally fade by July 4.
It was the kind of success that just doesn’t happen in 2021 — particularly on television. The introduction of options — whether they involve cord-cutting, app-subscribing, rerun-watching or opting to just scroll through social media instead of watching anything at all — have sliced the ‘90s-dominant notion of massive prime-time television viewing to ribbons.
Ratings numbers that would have been a reason for cancellation 20 years ago are now causes for celebration. One example: The debut episode of “The Equalizer,” a reboot of the crime drama starring Renaissance woman Queen Latifah, snagged 20.4 million viewers on CBS after Super Bowl LV in February. That is a big number in 2021 but a weekly baseline during the “Friends” era.
In a way, the “Friends” reunion doubles as a reaction to one of those new realities of digital entertainment. When the return to Central Perk was dreamed up, the plan was for it to be part of the rollout of HBO Max, the premium streaming service that snapped up the sitcom’s rerun rights once its contract with Netflix ended. The show was supposed to double as the announcement that all 236 “Friends” episodes would be exclusively available on a different streaming service — a big-ticket play for subscribers who got hooked on the adventurers of Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe, Rachel and Ross while it was available for endless binge-watching on Netflix.
The whole thing is a trip down memory lane that revels in fan service, so “Friends” newbies would do better to just hit play on the pilot.
But HBO Max launched a year ago with the “Friends” library but without the special, the production of which was put in limbo by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the special was confirmed in February 2020, quite a few things have happened: a highly dramatic presidential election, an insurrection at the Capitol and, oh yes, that pandemic. And HBO Max? After a bumpy rollout during which parent company WarnerMedia clashed with Amazon and Roku over distribution rights on its devices, it’s settled into a comfortable spot in the premium streaming marketplace, thanks to original programming like the thrill-packed “The Flight Attendant” and the zinger-stuffed “Hacks.”
But what’s next for HBO Max isn’t totally clear: WarnerMedia merged with Discovery last week, a coming-together that is no doubt purpose-built for a bottom line bolstered by the money that comes from blockbusters like “Friends.” (No pressure, of course.)
“Friends” wasn’t as much a blockbuster as it was a cultural touchstone, dominating discourse over water coolers, on magazine covers and at hair salons until its final episode.
In some way, then, the “Friends” reunion is a throwback to the era of May sweeps, a pre-summer television “event” designed to bring in huge numbers of viewers that would normally fade into being simply another search result by July 4. But it’s also a reminder of how much bigger TV used to be.
It does, however, have the appeal of a rerun in one important sense: It feels like it could have been made anytime in the last 17 years, with only the pieces of cloth fabric over audience members' mouths as a giveaway that the show was taped sometime between March 2020 and May 2021. (According to TMZ, the six cast members met up on the re-created set in early April 2021; for the portions filmed with audience members, those in the stands were masked.)
The whole thing is a trip down memory lane that revels in fan service, so “Friends” newbies would do better to just hit play on the pilot. The ever-mugging James Corden was, for whatever reason, given hosting duties; the portions where he lobs softball questions at the six cast members are probably the weakest parts of the special.
The “Friends” reunion doubles as a reaction to one of those new realities of digital entertainment.
By contrast, when the reunitees are just hanging out — in front of cameras, yes, without an outsider clumsily mediating the conversation — their chemistry is apparent. It’s especially front and center during the table reads of old episodes, which are cut into the original material to show that, yes, they’ve all still got a talent for repartee. (Perhaps someday the full table reads will be bonus material for people who shell out extra for HBO Max.)
There’s also a running thread of how “Friends” helped people feel like they, too, belonged, whether those people are a young man in India looking for solace as he takes care of his dying father or a young Ghanian woman dealing with crushing depression or Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. (According to her bestie, the peace advocate is a Joey, with a hint of Phoebe.) When Kudrow sits down on the Central Perk couch to run through Phoebe’s signature song, “Smelly Cat,” she’s eventually joined by prominent pop misfit Lady Gaga and thanked for helping the next generation of oddballs forge their paths through.
While it’s strange to think one of the biggest sitcoms in the history of TV — one that inspired haircut trends, Top-40 hits and pre-"virality" catchphrases (“How you doin’?”) to take flight, let alone which was also at times kind of mean — helped outsiders find their people, it’s a reminder that journeys into one’s deeper self can begin in improbable places.
They can also end in happy ones. Near the end of the reunion show’s 100-plus minutes, the six stars were asked about the possibility of returning to the “Friends” milieu for another go at it. The cast demurred, with Kudrow saying, “I don’t want anyone’s happy ending unraveled.” She was speaking of the characters, who all rode off into the sunset at the end of “The Last One.”
But it doubles as a nice riposte to those media executives who have pinned so much of their hopes on reboots, rehashes and remakes. Nostalgia for old TV shows may be the backbone of streaming services, but too many runs through the content machine can make their luster wear off quicker than an endless loop of “I’ll Be There for You.”