The long-running sitcom gets the reunion treatment with a messy mix of interviews, Q&As, and guest appearances.
In the Friends episode “The One Where Ross Got High,” Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) makes a trifle for Thanksgiving dessert. In classic sitcom fashion, she accidentally ends up filling her sweet treat with beef. The meaty layer, sandwiched between ladyfingers, jam, and custard, sticks out like a sore thumb, and everyone tries to hide their disgust so as to not upset her. Everyone, that is, except Joey, who loves it and, like a true friend, ends up eating the plates others willingly give up.
As it turns out, Rachel’s trifle is a lot like HBO Max’s Friends: The Reunion. It’s disguised as a sweet treat, but as you dig deeper you find it has some awkward, messy layers that one could do without. True fans probably won’t mind the extra serving of Rachel, Monica, (Courteney Cox), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Chandler (Matthew Perry), and Ross (David Schwimmer) as they meet up on the show’s set. Together, they recreate table reads of memorable scenes, watch bloopers reels (including one featuring an actual injury from a cast member), and sit through a clumsy Q&A session with James Corden.
The special opens with just the six cast members. They enter the Friends soundstage one by one, greet each other with hugs, and set off to wander around the set. They reminisce about specific scenes from the show’s 10-year run, laughing and crying as they reconnect as a group. One can feel the chemistry between them as they catch up. In one moment, Cox tears up during the reunion and LeBlanc helps her wipe away a tear.
The admiration between these actors is tangible, and these emotional moments show the audience something we’ve rarely seen from the cast: the actors interacting with each other as themselves, not the exaggerated characters they played onscreen. These scenes were the sweet spot of the reunion, watching the cast mingle as if no time had passed since the 2004 finale.
From there, the reunion special tries to pivot to the audience Q&A hosted by Corden and filmed on the backlot where they shot the show’s opening credits. Crammed on the Central Perk couch in front of the famous fountain, Corden opens questions like, “How often do you stay in touch?” and later polls the group to see who thinks if Ross and Rachel were really on a break. The whole Q&A feels intrusive, breaking from intimate moments of just the cast to thrusting them onstage for a bland interview segment.
But before they get too comfy on the couch, the special pivots to pre-taped interviews with show creators Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman, and David Crane. When they introduce the creators for their solo interviews, they play the same five seconds of “I’ll Be There for You” after each creator’s introduction. It’s bizarre and amateurish. Afterward, director Ben Winston tries to switch back to the cast mingling together on set, but the constant shifts between reunions, Q&As, and pre-taped interviews are clunky and messy. Winston can try to pivot the special all he wants, but as Ross, Chandler, and Rachel know, sometimes you can’t pivot yourself out of a messy premise.
[T]he constant shifts between reunions, Q&As, and pre-taped interviews are clunky and messy.
On top of all this, Friends: The Reunion trots out a handful of special guest appearances, bringing in past supporting players to applause one can only get from being filmed in front of a live studio audience. Other guests include current-day fans of the show like Malala Yousafzai, who discovered the show through a friend, and a musical duet of “Smelly Cat” with Kudrow and one monstrously talented musician. These guest appearances may start out fun and quirky but lose their appeal as the special continues on, further bloating the 104-minute runtime.
Friends: The Reunion is worth watching to see the cast together again. In one moment, they’re all recalling the moment they knew they went from unknown actors to full-blown stars. LeBlanc recalls seeing a live news story where press helicopters were hovering over his house. That’s when he realized this show was going to be a success. He also realized he had to fix his roof. The other cast members laugh, recognizing their tight-knit bond was forged as they rose from everyday humans to television celebrities. These are the delicious layers to the special. It’s just too bad they’re sandwiched between bloated, gimmicky scenes that could leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Friends: The Reunion is now streaming on HBO Max.