Wait, what’s going on with the new Friends reunion special? There is no episode, no update on how the show’s characters have survived through parenthood, the 2008 financial crisis, and Trump. It’s just a bunch of people who were involved with the show sitting around in their one-time workplace, talking about stuff that stopped happening 17 years ago, interspersed with celeb cameos, a clip show, and the odd blooper reel. Sort of like a big budget podcast. Lady Gaga does a song with Phoebe. Malala Yousafzai, we find out, is “Joey with a hint of Phoebe”. Justin Bieber is a potato. At one point, David Beckham—Goldenballs himself—shows up and narrates the bit from that episode where Ross briefly loses his frail grip on reality and starts screaming “Pivot!” over and over again. It’s all very odd and unsettling.
The Friends reunion, “The One Where They Get Back Together”, is not good or bad or shitty or transcendental or anything of the sort. It is whatever you want it to be. It exists as nothing more than a blank slate onto which we, the viewers, get to project our thoughts and feelings and emotions. Your tolerance for maudlin nostalgia and its hold on you will dictate how you respond to this much-hyped offering.
Over a period of 100 minutes, the six main cast members—Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer: the gang!—take a long and sentimental walk down memory lane, dragging us down with them. It’s sweet and intimate, as the actors get to re-live the memories that define their careers and, most likely, their lives. Except that it’s broadcast to the world.
They visit the sets of the two neighbouring apartments where most of the episodes were centred, as well as the famous “Central Perk” coffee shop and that fountain where they shot the theme song sequence. We get a round-table where they do line readings of famous plot points; a modern-day recreation of the memorable quiz scene that ends with Monica and Rachel trading apartments with Joey and Chandler, blurring the lines between fiction and reality; an interview conducted by English comedian and actor James Corden; little snippets of guest actors offering their perspective; the creators talking about the early days and the casting process. It’s all there and it’s neatly packaged. They crack little jokes at each other, displaying the real life bond between the actors that’s been well documented over the years, which informed the chemistry they had on the show. They laugh and share cute moments with each other, they cry about the good times—a lot.
Through its duration, we get little peeks into the real lives of the people who played these characters for 10 ridiculously successful years—six incredibly rich, attractive, generally likeable middle-aged actors who we think we know intimately. The reunion, really, is a celebration of Friends and its incredible and unparalleled impact on pop culture. It’s little more than fan service, and it rarely pretends otherwise.
As ever with anything so successful, Friends the show itself is a tricky subject to navigate. It’s been close to 20 years since it finished but, for successive generations of urban Indian teenagers and young adults then and now, the show has served as a rite of passage. A glimpse into growing up, making lifelong bonds with strangers, finding love, finding a purpose. An aspirational reality. It’s not our fault—it was on TV all of the time. There was nothing else to watch. And it was a glorious insight into American comedy and pop culture. People have, without exaggeration, seen the whole series 10, 15, 20 times. They have entire episodes memorised; they spit out lines from the show unprompted like we’re living in the 1400s. It’s embarrassing.
People seek comfort—solace, even—through Friends, and the reunion taps into that impulse with zeal and mints it.
So many of us identified with the characters we saw; just as many ended up modelling our entire personalities on these six prototypes: the weird one, the neat freak, the sarcastic one, the nerdy one, maybe even a mix-and-match Subway sandwich situation.
On the reunion, there’s a series of talking heads from across the world choking up as they describe how important Friends was to them while growing up: how it helped them find their place in the world, got them through difficult times, made them laugh, made them who they are. Mawkish and 100% true. The show always helped people get by, perhaps still does.
Today, Friends isn’t just a sitcom. It has gone well past that; it’s a goddamn cultural phenomenon. An automatic trigger for the very worst (and most tempting) excesses of nostalgia. And what better time for some indulgent navel-gazing into a romantic past than a global pandemic that’s made new memories difficult to come by (pleasant ones, at least)? People seek comfort—solace, even—through Friends, and the reunion taps into that impulse with zeal and mints it.
But it’s not all straightforward. As the years went by and the world moved on, Friends had to face its reckoning. Cultural criticism, previously a closed group, expanded to include more diverse voices, thanks in no small part to the internet. And these voices pointed out its many, many flaws that had been ignored or brushed under the carpet, puncturing the previously idyllic idea of Friends in popular consciousness: a funny, sentimental story of a group of friends who love each other like family, growing up and finding their way in life. Its lack of diversity and inclusivity began to be more universally acknowledged, as did the bubble of white privilege and minority erasure that the show seemed to reside in. Its humour and morality were dissected and analysed by newer, more thoughtful standards, and the glaring homophobia, transphobia, and a persistent thread of toxicity underlining the plotlines—among other things—all came to the surface.
Mainstream bickering over the legacy of Friends has become a recurring theme in the media now. A counter-argument against the criticism is that Friends was merely a product of its time, that the criticism fails to contextualise the era in which it existed. That while it indeed hasn’t aged well, it shouldn’t be judged by modern day metrics in the first place. This may well be a narrow understanding though, since the show was such a cultural whirlwind that it dictated trends and norms rather than following them. Friends wasn’t merely mirroring the bigotries of the time, it was actively (deliberately or otherwise) perpetuating them.
It’s difficult to separate the cultural analysis and the repositioning of Friends over the years from the show and its reunion (and that’s without addressing the proud Enemies of Friends camp, the ones who’ll announce [repeatedly] that they’ve never seen a single episode, all of whom have my respect).
Is it possible to love—in a very personal way like so many still do—the show while at the same time addressing and acknowledging its many obvious concerns? Does all the legitimately good stuff about Friends—the famous catchphrases, the sharp physical comedy, the excellent work by the actors, the feeling of familiarity and “relatability” that the writers were able to cultivate, or even its impact on popular culture and comedy—get diminished because of the things it did poorly, or the harm it may have caused? How the viewer approaches these questions will ultimately decide for them how good or bad or average The One With All The Manipulative Tearjerker Moments really is.