Friends reunion: The one with the Remember the One With … ?

A long, emotional get-together is best when it gets out of its cast’s way.

The episode titles in Friends were distinctively generic: The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break, The One With the Monkey. The template said a few things about the show. This was a comedy that would never take itself seriously; it was not going to name an episode Ozymandias. Its titles assumed that you would forget them. It understood how fans watched TV and how they talked about it.

Friends: The Reunion, the sweet, shaggy special arriving on HBO Max Thursday (available to watch on TVNZ 2 at 7.02pm tonight), makes another thing about the titles clear: They’re pre-nostalgised. They’re written the way you would try to remember the episodes, retrospectively, years later — say, at a reunion.

And when I say “you,” I include the actors who starred in them. “Do you remember the one where you guys were throwing a ball back and forth?” Jennifer Aniston asks her old colleagues. (It was, in fact, called The One With the Ball.) Later, Matt LeBlanc recalls being in his kitchen and seeing a rerun of “the one with the leather pants.” (Actually, The One With All the Resolutions.)

The Friends stars are, give or take a few zillion dollars and magazine covers, just like us. They just want to remember. And this reunion is a remember-that machine. Central Perk, Smelly Cat, “We were on a break”; check, check and check.

Nostalgia was built into Friends right down to the concept, which co-creator David Crane describes here as, “It’s about that time in your life when your friends were your family.”

In other words, it’s a show about a time that you know will end even as you live through it, that you will look back on later, with a new life and new responsibilities, romanticising the days when you were young, hot and broke, yet somehow living in an unreasonably large apartment.

So this special is the superexpressway of memory lanes, an hour and three-quarters that stitch together several formats: a talk-show-style interview with James Corden; a celebrity-packed tribute; a collection of behind-the-scenes clips; and a revisiting and re-creation of classic scenes.

But first, the waterworks. Friends was always a balance of fine-tuned comedy writing and sentiment, and the reunion begins and ends on the latter. The cast members walk onto the old Warner Bros. soundstage one at a time, to hugs and the swell of angelic music, as if they are meeting in the afterlife — which, in the TV sense, they are.

I doubt fans will begrudge them a little sap. Friends might be the best-liked sitcom ever — by which I don’t mean “best” or even “most popular,” but simply that its overarching success was to create a sense of genial affection toward itself and its characters. All in the Family made arguments. The Simpsons made an immense world. Friends just made friends.

For this reason, the obligatory talking-head testimonies are nice but superfluous — though it’s charming to hear Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai described by her best friend Vee Kativhu as “Joey with a hint of Phoebe.”

Likewise, Corden’s interview feels peripheral among all the elements here, particularly since so many of his questions boil down to “Remember when?” and “What do you remember about?” (One question about offscreen relationships does yield a quasi-revelation that a competent publicity team will try to trumpet like it’s proof of life on Mars.)

The special is better when it gets out of the cast’s way and shows us what drew us to them, and them to each other. As the special notes, they were relative unknowns suddenly thrown into the celebrity panopticon. Now they’re like an astronaut crew, bound by an otherworldly experience. As David Schwimmer says, only the six of them really understand what one another went through, and there’s a protective feel to their interactions now.

The best thing about the reunion is what it isn’t: The cast and creators are adamant about never making a where-are-they-now revival episode. (“I don’t want anybody’s happy ending unravelled,” Lisa Kudrow says, and thank God.) Instead, they re-create the experience of the series with set pieces, like a reprise of the boys-vs.-girls trivia game from The One With the Embryos, and, especially, the table reads.

Friends, after all, did not get where it did simply on catchphrases and haircuts. The cast’s reading from The One With the Jellyfish — in which Chandler, Joey and Monica confess to using the (mythical) pee-on-it trick to kill the pain of a sea-creature sting — shows the talent it takes to wring the laughs out of a comedy scene that’s written like a survivor’s horror drama. In a breakdown of the couch-moving sequence, a scene with scant dialogue becomes a classic on the strength of Schwimmer’s delivery of the two syllables, “Pi-vot!”

If the whole affair feels a touch less special, it’s because of a glut in the nostalgia market. It was announced, with fanfare and a reportedly hefty price tag, in February 2020, just before the pandemic lockdowns. Since then, a slew of beloved series — Community, The Office, E.R., Parks and Recreation — have reunited over Zoom and on TV, for charity or just because they could.

But this reunion does make a fitting Gen X bookend to the reunion of The Real World: New York earlier this year. (You could think of Friends, which premiered in 1994, as kind of a scripted answer to the original Real World, which aired two years earlier.) That follow-up was more willing to dig into the effects of time, what has and hasn’t aged well in the original season and the cast’s flaws and challenges (including clashes on the set of the new show).

Friends: The Reunion is not reality TV, nor a news report. So there’s plenty you won’t hear about: the contentious contract negotiations; criticisms of the show for casting mainly white actors; personal or health issues. When an audience member asks what the actors disliked about making the show, Corden jokingly chides, “Way to keep it positive!” (The collective answer throws Marcel the monkey under the bus.)

But then, nobody watched Friends to be reminded of the world’s woes. Those are what come after the finale, when you move out of that starter apartment and take on a mortgage. This was about seeing the stars together, supposedly for the last time — “We’re not doing this again in 15 years,” Courteney Cox says. After which the reruns, where the past stays frozen in place, will be there for you.

Written by: James Poniewozik

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