When the trailer for the Friends reunion came out a few weeks ago, I watched it at war with myself. I knew that the much-hyped HBO Max special would be, by design, a kind of nothingburger, even if one tricked out with all the fixings. Since its conclusion 17 years ago, Friends has remained uncannily popular, found and feasted upon by young people who weren’t alive when it began airing. The series’ perpetual ultra-popularity made some sort of new Friends content a no-brainer, but the cast and writers, having brains, had no interest in making a new episode, an onerous undertaking for which the risk-reward is almost all risk. Instead, bargaining as a unit as always, the cast procured large sums to do something more than a zoom, but less than a series. And I knew all of this watching the trailer, which, at its climax, consists of grandiose chatter about the show’s ability to comfort. And yet: I teared up. This is the uncanny power of Friends, the emo pull of perfectly executed vanilla.
And Friends is vanilla—by which I do not just mean extremely white, though absolutely that too. Many a critic, myself included, has banged their head against its marshmallowy surface to try and explain why something so edgeless works so well, but at a certain point, one just has to concede, some things just taste good. The Reunion is nowhere near as yummy, but it goes down fine.
Insofar as it has any perspective on the persistence of Friends as a cultural phenomenon (which it mostly doesn’t), the reunion’s position is that it comes down to casting. The special circles back again and again to the excellence of the show’s six actors and their rapport, effectively blurring the line between the characters and the people playing them. Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer aren’t Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, but the reunion accentuates the way that playing the latter forever linked the former, such that watching either is kind of like watching both. James Corden, gormlessly hosting a gussied-up panel discussion, at one point remarks that one of the actors said something “exactly like” their character—which is, of course, just how they talk.* The only new piece of information “revealed” in the special (and honestly, as a Friends head from way back, I feel like I read this in a magazine feature decades ago) is that Aniston and Schwimmer had crushes on one another early in the series’ run, feelings they channeled into Rachel and Ross, which only further accentuates the porousness between characters and actors.
This overlap is also the source of the most emotional thing about the reunion: the relentless passage of time. It can be rude and uncouth to remark on famous people’s faces, but forgoing it in this instance would leave critics in the strange position of not being able to write about the first thing anyone watching will notice. Just as there was a built-in poignancy in the Harry Potter movies of watching young people age in front of your eyes, there is a similar, if darker poignancy in watching adults age, or fight aging. As the reunion flits between the past and present, it’s finally the actors, not the characters, who are just like us. They have aged, while the characters remain in the bloom of their youth.
Despite running nearly two hours, the reunion never settles on anything long enough to go deep. It flits from one thing to another, giving various guest stars and famous people brief cameos, and sticking to hagiography, including a long clip reel of people expressing how Friends truly saved their lives. The best cameo is maybe Lady Gaga singing “Smelly Cat” with Kudrow, because Kudrow does it in character as Phoebe, and shoots Lady Gaga a deeply unimpressed glare when she finishes singing. The weirdest cameo has got to be Justin Bieber’s walk-on in a Friends fashion show, dressed in Ross’s potato Halloween costume. There are absolutely zero pointed questions and very little back and forth. Everyone is in reminiscence mode, primed to cue up clips from some old episode.
But that’s the other thing the reunion has going for it: those episodes. The series focuses on a handful specifically and even has the cast do table reads from a few. Not that it’s a competition, but again it’s Kudrow who comes off best. Her scream upon learning Monica and Chandler are together is maybe better than the one in the real episode. The table reads, like the whole special, aren’t terrible or great, but the scenes from real episodes usually are wonderful, sparkling in all their vanilla magnificence. When I finished watching the reunion it was late, but I still felt compelled to do exactly what HBO Max, the airer of the special and the online home of Friends, wanted me to do: I cued up an episode, and settled into “The One Where Ross Finds Out.”
Correction, May 27, 2021: This post originally misspelled James Corden’s last name.