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‘Friends: The Reunion’ Provides Plenty of Laughs, Actively Avoids the Tough Stuff

Watching HBO’s long-awaited Friends: The Reunion, the thing that strikes you first is that, in many ways, the cast of Friends—Jennifer Aniston (Rachel), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe), Courteney Cox (Monica), Matt LeBlanc (Joey), Matthew Perry (Chandler) and David Schwimmer (Ross)—know less about Friends than the fans do.

At one point, Aniston asks Schwimmer, “Do you remember the episode with the ball and you couldn’t drop the ball?” And he frowns and looks confused because he has zero memory of it whatsoever. That season five episode is literally called “The One With the Ball.”

At another point, LeBlanc tells Perry he kept the ball from Joey and Chandler’s foosball table as a souvenir from their time on the show. “You should’ve taken the table,” Perry replies, as if the destruction of that table wasn’t a prominent storyline in Friends’ very last episode, “The One Where They Say Goodbye.”

Most annoyingly, the entire cast happily concludes that, in 10 seasons—the show ran between 1994 and 2004—Friends never once revealed what Chandler did for a living. It makes sense that neither Kudrow nor Perry would know this—both admit, mid-reunion, to having never watched the whole show. But absolutely no one else remembers that Chandler worked in “data reconfiguration and statistical factoring.” (If you don’t believe me, check “The One With the Cooking Class” from season eight and “The One Where Rachel Goes Back to Work” from season nine. It’s right there, people!)

As you can probably tell, I am, against my better judgment, a big fan of Friends. I know its overwhelming whiteness is hideous, particularly for a show set in New York City. And I dislike immensely that it’s so consistently drenched in what Honest Trailers once accurately referred to as a “thin layer of gay panic.” Don’t even get me started on Joey’s tendency towards casual sexual predation. For some reason though, like a moldy old security blanket from childhood, I just can’t seem to let Friends go. And there are millions of other humans around the world just like me. As this special episode notes, the show is estimated to have been watched more than “100 billion times across platforms.”

I—and most everybody that still cares enough about this 27-year-old show to tune into a nearly-two-hour special about it—recovered months ago from the fact that this wasn’t a sitcom reunion in the traditional sense. It has been said repeatedly—and it’s reiterated during The Reunion, lest we get any ideas—that there will never, ever be another episode of Friends. So what we have to settle for here, instead, is six entertaining people who used to play six hilarious characters, appearing together for the first time in public since 2004 and making each other laugh.

The interview with James Cordon is distinctly so-so—except during one genuinely funny portion where David Schwimmer angrily vents about how much he hated working with Marcel the monkey in season one. (“I would like you to be more serious about this,” Perry quips.) So too is a living room trivia quiz (based on the one from Cox’s favorite episode, “The One With the Embryos”) more contrived than it ought to be. There is, however, something genuinely moving about seeing the reunited cast on their old set, verklempt and reminiscing about old times. It’s in these more candid moments that some of the interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits emerge. (The graffiti LeBlanc left on the set after the final episode is a particular treat.)

Many of the most insightful revelations unfold, not via the cast, but rather through documentary-style interviews with Friends’ creators, writers and producers, Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane. These encompass the original inspiration for the show, casting decisions, and on-the-fly plot pivots. (PIVOT!) When Bright reveals he only discovered Lisa Kudrow because she’d made an appearance on Mad About You while his boyfriend was writing for it, you appreciate just how precarious the show’s successful chemistry was. Also testament to that is the fact that the guy Joey tries to pass off as his identical twin in “The One With Unagi” was played by an actor who very nearly got the part of Joey himself.

Padding out all of this are a wealth of delightful appearances from former cast members. These include Reese Witherspoon (who played Rachel’s sister Jill), Tom Selleck (Monica’s boyfriend Richard), Christina Pickles and Elliott Gould (Ross and Monica’s parents), Maggie Wheeler (Janice!), James Michael Tyler (Gunther!), Thomas Lennon (Joey’s identical hand twin!) and Mr. Heckles himself, Larry Hankin. Paul Rudd is a glaring, unexplained absence difficult not to be bummed out about.

But the cameos don’t stop there. Justin Bieber makes an appearance that will have you really liking Justin Bieber. Cindy Crawford shows up. So does BTS. And when Cara Delevingne emerges, Jennifer Aniston’s jaw literally drops. On top of that, David Beckham, Mindy Kaling, Kit Harington and Malala Yousafzai pick their favorite episodes. Oh, and the musical guest who shows up to sing “Smelly Cat” with Lisa Kudrow is so special, I don’t even wanna spoil it.

So yes, this reunion is an enormous amount of fun. And there is plenty for fans to chew on here. Plus, of course, the warmth between the former castmates all these years later is legitimately a joy to behold. But where the reunion stumbles is in its unwavering commitment to keeping things light. Especially since Perry in particular seems genuinely overwhelmed by memories of that period in his life. He talks the least out of anyone else on set, and his occasionally slumped posture and difficulty enunciating hint at darker things going on beneath the surface. Occasionally, he tries to acknowledge them out loud, but these moments quickly pass.

“I felt like I was gonna die if they didn’t laugh,” Perry says of the anxiety he experienced performing in front of a live studio audience every week. “I would sometimes say a line and they wouldn’t laugh and I would sweat and go into convulsions.” Kudrow seems genuinely upset to only be hearing about this a quarter of a century after the fact. But rather than delving into whether or not this was a factor in Perry’s well-publicized struggles with addiction, Friends: The Reunion rushes on to the next happier, shinier thing.

It should come as no surprise then, that The Reunion makes zero attempt to tackle the criticisms Friends now regularly receives around its lack of diversity and inclusion. Worse, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that, in a mid-show segment featuring fans from around the globe, 11 out of 13 of them are either folks of color or members of the LGBTQ community. Though these fans’ stories are genuinely moving, the segment feels like a cynical attempt by producers to convince modern viewers that Friends wasn’t so straight and white after all.

In the end, what Friends: The Reunion does very well is what the sitcom itself excelled at: glossing over anything important or serious, and instead offering viewers something ridiculous to laugh at. And in that regard, it absolutely succeeds. Fans will undoubtedly want to watch this more than once. It’s just a shame the special doesn’t give its critics any reason to tune in.

Copyright 2021 KQED