The one they shouldn’t have made: Friends’ pointless, self-aggrandizing reunion delivers neither nostalgia nor laughs
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
The often-delayed and much-hyped ‘Friends: The Reunion’ finally premiered on HBO Max on Thursday. The end result of this rather slick, self-aggrandizing, hour and 43-minute long commercial for itself was a bevy of ambivalent shrugs and a collective “who cares?”.
‘Friends’ burst on the scene on September 22, 1994 and with its beautiful and talented cast of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon.
Like some sort of sitcom Beatlemania, ‘Friends’ became part of the cultural zeitgeist, with its catchphrases (how YOU doin’?), storylines (Ross and Rachel) and style (the ever-present Rachel hairdo) dominating mainstream entertainment discourse for a decade until its finale on May 6, 2004.
The show was enormously successful as the top-rated television comedy for six of its 10 years, averaging a whopping 25 million viewers an episode in America.
Even after it rode off into the sunset and was relegated to reruns, the show still garnered much attention, as it was consistently among the most streamed programs on Netflix, and has been watched over 100 billion times over all platforms during its lifetime.
The staying power of ‘Friends’ is why WarnerMedia were so keen to get their hands on the show in order for it to be the cornerstone of their new streaming service HBO Max, and shelled out $425 million for the privilege.
The ‘Friends’ reunion, only the second time in 17 years the cast has been in the same room together, was meant to be the big draw to HBO Max when it opened for business in May of 2020, but due to Covid, the filming of the reunion was pushed back not once but twice. And now it is finally here.
The idea of a ‘Friends’ reunion where the characters Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey returned had the potential to be pretty great.
The opportunities were endless for the show’s creators. They could have opted to have Ross and Rachel bitterly divorced, Monica addicted to meth, Chandler embracing his true trans nature, Phoebe homeless playing guitar on the subway, and Joey facing homicide charges, and it would’ve been interesting if not entertaining. ‘Friends’ could have been daring and deconstructed, if not self-destructed, its rather monotonous middlebrow milieu.
Instead, the new episode is like a reunion at a high school you didn’t attend, where you’re left out of the conversation and have to watch the cool kids reminisce about their awesome lives.
The problem with the reunion is that fans only care about Aniston, Schwimmer, Cox, Perry, Kudrow and LeBlanc because they were Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey. But Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey aren’t in the reunion, only Aniston, Schwimmer, Cox, Perry, Kudrow and LeBlanc are. A ‘Friends’ reunion only has power if it’s bringing those characters back together, not just bringing the cast back together.
Watching them sit around and recount funny stories and do some minimal table reads isn’t the slightest bit interesting or entertaining. It’s sort of like reassembling a famous band and having them talk about when they used to play music together, as opposed to actually having them play some music together.
To make things worse, the show is sometimes hosted by James Corden, and the only good thing about James Corden is when Ricky Gervais makes fun of him. For instance, at the 2020 Golden Globes Gervais gloriously quipped, “this year the world got to see James Corden as a fat pussy…and he was also in ‘Cats’!” Sadly, the ‘Friends’ reunion has no Ricky Gervais, only James Corden.
Also unfortunate is having to watch David Beckham, Kit Harrington, Malala Yousafzai and Mindy Kaling tell us their favorite episodes, or Lady Gaga sing ‘Smelly Cat’, or Justin Bieber, Cara Delevingne and Cindy Crawford model silly ‘Friends’ costumes, or a relentlessly ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ bunch of ‘Friends’ fans share how much the show means to them. All of which is just as awful and self-congratulatory as it sounds.
Ultimately, the ‘Friends’ reunion isn’t so much a testament to its greatness as it is a monument to the ravages of age. Father Time is still undefeated and proof of that is on the bloated, surgically supplemented faces of the cast. Lisa Kudrow aside, the entire cast has aged dramatically and dreadfully.
Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston were two of the most luminous beauties on television during the show’s heyday, but now if you saw them and their contorted faces in your bathroom at four in the morning, you’d think your house was haunted.
Both women constantly dabbed the corners of their eyes with tissues throughout the reunion, but it seemed less like they were crying and more like they were leaking from a deficient surgical seam.
In addition, Matt LeBlanc looks like he’s eaten a whole Joey and Matthew Perry looks like something is very wrong with him. I don’t mean that as a joke, Perry looks genuinely ill to the point of it being very disconcerting.
Regardless of the ravages of age on the cast, people have always watched ‘Friends’ for the escapist dopamine hit of some soft sitcom humor, but ‘Friends: The Reunion’ doesn’t have that, and is also shockingly devoid of even the dopamine hit of nostalgia.
In conclusion, ‘Friends’ hasn’t done anything interesting or worthwhile since the show ended in 2004, and some would argue the same was true during the show’s run. Rest assured, the unimaginative ‘Friends: The Reunion’ keeps that streak resolutely intact.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.