Seventeen years is odd timing for a reunion, so you kind of have to wonder what inspired HBO Max to get the old Friends gang back together. Other than the fact that everything old is new again, or more likely, the recent deal in which WarnerMedia bought the series’ streaming rights from Netflix to air its 236 episodes on HBO Max. But unlike other series that tried to pick up where they left off (Spectrum’s unwise Mad About You reboot) or start over with a mostly new cast (Peacock’s inspired new take on Saved By The Bell), the cast and creators of Friends decided to go the route of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air by revisiting familiar material. Friends: The Reunion is a self-aggrandizing celebration of a long-gone but still beloved show.
In the 104 minutes of the special, we see numerous revisits at once: the cast meeting up again on the rebuilt set for the first time in 17 years, a table read in which they mimic episodic dialogue from decades ago, a taped group interview in front of an audience hosted by James Corden, a clip show, even a bloopers reel. Corden is basically filling the role that Conan O’Brien held on a similar special from 2001, asking the world’s most famous Friends about the show that made them all stars. Granted, there’s no disputing that Friends ruled the small screen in the 1990s, and reruns and those streaming services mentioned above have helped bring the then-twentysomethings to a whole new audience (there’s a cute moment when both Schwimmer and LeBlanc talk about revisiting the show with their daughters). One of the special’s most self-congratulatory moments is when it visits Friends fans from around the world, explaining how the show helped them through dark times. “They were my friends when I didn’t have any friends,” says a young woman from Mexico, choking up. But given the show’s ongoing popularity, do we really need Nobel-prize-winner Malala Yousafzai and her best friend discussing their interest in the show as a selling point?
Even with millions of fans the world over, there’s no question that the people the show most affected were its six stars: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, and Matt LeBlanc. All have achieved varying levels of post-Friends success, with Aniston the breakout star. There is something sweet about seeing all six in the same room together for the first time in years, as their affection for each other is obvious. Kudrow seems the most solid, Schwimmer the de facto leader, Cox and Aniston the most emotional. The jovial LeBlanc just seems happy to be there, while Perry unfortunately appears worse for wear (a condition reportedly credited to dental surgery before the filming). The special revisits the series’ best episodes (“The One With The Embryos,” “The One Where No One’s Ready,” “The One Where Everyone Finds Out”) in various forms, while fans like David Beckham and Kit Harington chime in on their love for the series. Random guest stars show up, some more welcome than others (remember Mr. Heckles, the grouchy neighbor from the first few seasons?).
The problem is, for such a well-loved (and well-examined) series, there is very little new info here. We know the Friends became best friends in real life because they were all experiencing the same huge rise in fame at the same time; it’s literally the lede in Vanity Fair’s extensive 2012 Friends oral history. We know that Schwimmer hated the monkey. One of the bloopers in the blooper reel was already shown on that Conan special. There are a few juicy revelations—like an intra-cast crush—but they’re unfortunately few and far between. Some additions to the special are inspired, though, like having real-life models—and some surprising famous faces—wearing some of the series’ iconic outfits in a runway fashion show, or a restaging of “Embryos”’ all-Friends trivia contest.
Still, the special’s most valuable moments are seeing the six Friends together again on the set where they spent 10 years of their lives. Sure, there’s a lot of “Oh, my gosh, look at that.” But the hugs and tears are real, as is the backstage huddle, LeBlanc’s familiar teasing of his former co-stars, Aniston’s surprisingly loud laugh, the general disbelief at the passage of time. At first, the decision to have the present-day actors read over some of the series’ most iconic moments seems jarring, but it eventually emerges as a helpful way to tie the past to the present (2021 Kudrow effortlessly nails Phoebe’s “My eyes!” exclamation upon finding out about Chandler and Monica’s relationship). It’s also a deeper dive into what made Friends the TV capsule that it is, and getting to see fiftysomething Aniston and Schwimmer revisit Ross and Rachel’s first kiss scene is bound to move the series’ most ardent fans. (They’re the ones most likely to be watching this anyway.)
Those moments show why Friends was right to go this route for a reunion, no matter how superfluous it is. As Kudrow explains after Corden asks her if they’d ever go back, she credits show creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who are in the audience (and, along with director Kevin Bright, appear in talking heads) for writing the perfect happy endings for all the characters all those years ago. Dismantling the Friends series finale (which was seen by 50 million people, as Corden points out) for the sake of a new series does not seem worth the risk—which helps explain a low-stakes reunion like this one.