Brow Beat

The Friends Pop-Up Captures Everything About the Show Except What Made It Great

The mystery of Friends’ enduring appeal can’t be solved by sifting through the show’s junk.

The cast of Friends at Central Perk.
The cast of Friends at Central Perk. NBC

According to the binary view of taste, ’90s Sitcom Edition, there are Seinfeld people and there are Friends people. Seinfeld people are smart, witty, cynical, and palatably abrasive. Friends people are uncultured philistines. (Not enough people love Frasier to have it count as one of the three genders.) But as they say, hate is another kind of love. However poorly the politics of the show (or any sitcom of its ilk) may have aged, however hackneyed its jokes are, however detached from reality it is, so many people, including people in their 20s, love Friends. And so I found myself, on a cloudy afternoon after work in 2019, at the Friends Pop-Up experience.

As I walked in, off Mercer Street in a chic, scaffolding-heavy part of SoHo. a friendly host advised me to download the mobile app Friends 25, which features wallpapers, photo frames and stickers, and recipes (make Ross’ “the Moist Maker” or Monica’s “Break-Up Jam”!), commemorating the show’s 25th anniversary. As I attempted to move on, the host made sure to tell me that if I had any questions, or just wanted to talk about how much I love Friends, to talk to anyone in a black shirt emblazoned with “How You Doin’?” on it. “We’ll be there for you!” he said in a cheery voice that will haunt me for the rest of the month. (The Friends Pop-Up Experience runs until Oct. 6, although there are currently no tickets available.)

The FPUE is part museum exhibition and part fan simulation, and both parts are desperately put together and depressingly lazy in execution. Attendees can take pictures re-creating the scene in Season 5 when Ross tries to get a couch up a narrow stairwell (“PIVOT!” read shirts you can buy online), but the couch itself looks flimsy, and the walls look weak and obviously fake—faker even than a sitcom set. Ross’ leather pants, the Geller Family Cup, and an academic certificate are on display, and the wall adjacent displays fun infographics about Ross the character and his various connections to Rachel. There’s the sunburnt orange couch in front of what looks like a papier-mâché fountain at the beginning; the door to Rachel and Monica’s apartment (permanently ajar); Joey and Chandler’s apartment, where the twin BarcaLoungers sit in front of Joey’s homemade and egregiously large home entertainment system; and, at the end, the Central Perk couch and coffee table, with wallpaper around the perimeter to fill gaps in the imagination.

Each character gets their own little section of props and vaguely interactive experiences. For Monica, it’s cleaning products sponsored by Method, and a turkey with glasses you can put on your head; for Phoebe, there’s a jukebox. Another sponsored section includes an insurance claim to State Farm “made by” Chandler. But none of this ephemera provides much insight into the show or why it matters as a cultural touchstone. The experience is less like the Warner Brothers studio lot tour, where the “real” Central Perk is preserved for posterity, and more like an expensive-yet-shabby diorama. To call it uncanny would be giving the arrangement too much credit.

I walked around the space and I didn’t feel the nostalgic thrill that it encourages; I felt like my brain was melting. The pop-up experience felt tacky, but not in the enjoyable way that the show could be tacky. Though life as a queer person of Asian experience is peppered with obstacles, I have experienced the most hardship as a Friends apologist. I find myself defending the show frequently, while noting its shortcomings, at work, parties, on dates, with strangers on the R train. But the dynamics between characters were so close and raw, yet they also invited an illusory shared encounter, a warm familiarity. I watched it with my father when I was growing up, so there is at once a nostalgic attachment to the series and a genuine admiration for how the cast worked with and elevated good sitcom writing.

In the landscape of shows in and about New York, Friends felt the least distinctly “New York.” It was the chemistry between the actors that mattered, and that kept viewers hanging on seasons after the writing had putrefied. That insularity was integral to the show, but it’s impossible to make the chemistry between actors something that other people can experience outside of live tapings. The gags, the jokes, the individual set pieces, however good or bad, were just a costume closet for very good actors to play around in.

On the subject of other metro-based “experiences,” the New York Times’ Amanda Hess wrote, “Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ suggested that the technology to endlessly replicate images had compromised the aura of art, the unique presence of an original piece. These spaces offer a canny, if cynical, response: The guests supply the aura.” But how could guests supply the aura here? On Friends, perhaps more than any other series, the cast was the aura. Jennifer Aniston’s stellar balance of comedy and tragedy, Lisa Kudrow’s wackiness, Matt LeBlanc’s earnestness and charm, Courteney Cox’s passionate zealotry, David Schwimmer’s pomposity, and Matthew Perry’s self-effacing endearment are indelible elements in pop cultural and popular acting history. Even when criticisms were being lobbed at the show about its issues concerning class, race, homophobia, and insularity (criticisms regurgitated by BuzzFeed two-and-a-half decades later, masquerading as new “actually, that thing you like is bad” hot takes), the aura supplied by its cast was enough to (sort of) mitigate even the basic, unrealistic nature of its premise. A hat with a logo or a lobster shot glass is leached of that alchemy. It’s just something to buy.

It’s possible that the twentysomethings sweating through Friends T-shirts in the East Village, not far from where the show “really” took place, are sporting the logo with a modicum of ironic distance. But the $100 million Netflix paid to extend its lease on the show through the end of this year proves that the show’s audience is as large and passionate as it was 25 years ago. Copycat shows have come and gone. (Remember Coupling?) But thanks to those unforgettable performances, Friends is forever. And no “experience” can ever recapture that magic.