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Friends: The Reunion Takes a Bittersweet Trip to the Past

Back in 1994, an incredible TV show premiered. I’m talking about My So-Called Life. It was groundbreaking, portraying a teen girl, Angela, as an actual teen girl–glum, silent, touchy, prone to dropping old friends without warning and dyeing her hair an ugly color… and also loving and supportive to her friends, occasionally willing to acknowledge her parents’ existence, and just generally figuring herself out.

I worked in Young Adult publishing at the time, and we were all in awe of this show and its depiction of the obsessive and not-quite-functional first love Angela felt for Jordan Catalano. Everybody thought it was a great show, and since Angela and Jordan Catalano were played by Claire Danes and Jared Leto, I stand by that.

It got terrible ratings and was canceled after one season. So why am I bringing this up now? Because the reason My So-Called Life got terrible ratings was its time slot competition.

You see, children, back in the day there were three networks (Fox was still new and counted as maybe 65% of a network) and they would air shows at a specific time each week. That’s right, one episode a week. No binging. If there were two shows on at the same time on different networks, you had to just PICK ONE. Like a caveman! The best you could hope for was that the other show would be re-run over the summer so you could see it then, but frequently re-runs got pre-empted by baseball. (Do you youngsters know what “pre-empted” means in terms of TV?) There were some VCRs that could tape one network while you watched another, but first of all, they were expensive, and second, nobody knew how to program VCRs.

Anyway, My So-Called Life aired on ABC in the 8 pm hour on Thursdays. And that same year, another show premiered on NBC… in the 8 pm hour on Thursdays. It was called Friends.

I remember being so bitter about Friends. My So-Called Life was incredible! Why was everybody talking about Jennifer Aniston’s hair instead? I tried, I tried HARD, to get my non-YA-loving friends to watch Angela mooning over Jordan Catalano instead. Halfway through the season, it was obvious that this was a lost cause. So one night I flipped to Friends on a commercial break (I’ll teach you about commercials in my next old-lady blog rant!) just to see. I don’t know if I ever flipped back.

Because here’s the thing. Friends was funny. Like really funny. What made it so funny? I wasn’t sure… until the night I went to an improv show during season two and the cast sang a parody of the famous Friends theme song. They changed “I’ll be there for you” to “I’m so sick of you” and they were right–the show was everywhere. Friends was a juggernaut. But one of the other lines in their parody song hit me hard–“finally a show about people my own age!”

That was it. The friends were a bunch of twentysomethings. MY friends were a bunch of twentysomethings. And suddenly, after being told over and over that we were useless slackers and living in a world composed entirely of Boomer nostalgia, Boomer activism stories, Boomer sexual revolution stories, Boomer Wall Street mania… there was something for us. This sit-com was marketed at US! Its lead-in, Mad About You, was about people in their thirties. Its follow-up, Seinfeld, was too. These were the biggest white people hit shows on TV, and they were about New Yorkers and their friends… but they weren’t about Gen-X. Friends was. I will never forget how hard I laughed when Chandler made a crack about “Dee, the sarcastic sister from What’s Happening!

I swear I’d forgotten about Dee until that moment. The cultural references of my life didn’t seem important–to anyone–because all the pop-culture references we saw in movies and shows were about Woodstock and Altamont and the Civil Rights movement and the Summer of Love. You know, things we never experienced. But now we were a force, enough of one to deserve our own references on TV.

That’s what made Friends so funny. It used the pop cultural understanding of Generation X.

To us fellow Gen-Xers, that was hilarious. Apparently to the Boomers, it felt surprising and different enough that they liked it too. And even if they didn’t, they liked the will-they-won’t-they relationship of Ross and Rachel. (Ross was the worst, Rachel deserved better, we all know it.)

So Friends became outrageously popular to the point that it got annoying. Then Monica and Chandler got together and things got better again for a while. But when the show finally ended in 2004, everyone sort of knew it was time. The world had moved on. Friends was left behind.

Maybe three years ago my tween daughter–born after Friends ended–asked me if I’d ever heard of it. Reader, I laughed in her face. What a thing to ask an American who had been alive in the 1990s! Turns out, she was watching it online and so were all her friends. I couldn’t get past the weirdness of that–everything in that show is anachronistic now, and kids hate old people just on general principle. Why did they like it? Because, she told me, it was funny.

I have to admit, if I stumble across Friends on cable in the middle of the night, I’ll still watch it. My husband sometimes describes his inexplicable corporate job as “like Chandler Bing’s” and everyone understands. The show holds up! It’s not perfect, and its flaws are more obvious now than they used to be, but if you walked into a coffee shop and Janice yelled “Oh. My. God!” at you, you would laugh.

So now we come to the question: Should you watch Friends: The Reunion on HBO Max?

First you have to ask yourself, do I like James Corden? Because he’s hosting the show, for no apparent reason.

Next you have to ask yourself, do I miss this show enough to watch other people talk about it? Because you can just as easily watch Friends itself on any number of streaming services.

Then ask, do I need to see awkward cameos from random people who had nothing to do with Friends? Because Reese Witherspoon–who played one of Rachel’s sisters–makes sense. But Lady Gaga doesn’t.

You can also ask, do I like learning about how TV shows are made? Because you do get a nice look behind the scenes in a way that makes the familiar show feel unexpected.

And finally, take a good look into your heart and ask yourself if you can handle seeing the young, gorgeous, hopeful Monica, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey as middle-aged people. Because Generation X has become middle-aged, and that’s what we get in Friends: The Reunion. It’s not the characters, of course, who have aged. It’s the actors. But there’s enough of the characters in them–their mannerisms, their voices–that we can imagine the middle-aged friends.

We don’t have to imagine the actors; they’re right in front of us, spending a day together on an exact replica of their old set. We see their stunned reactions to stepping back in time when they arrive, individually, at the soundstage. But we also see that it’s not entirely a comfortable thing to be reliving the past, not for all of them. I’m not into personal gossip, but the years have been harder on some than on others. That’s reality, that’s life. Plopped back down in the place you worked for the entirety of your twenties, who wouldn’t have mixed feelings? The actors are forced to confront who they were then, and that’s not easy. Matthew Perry mentions that he used to feel like he would die if the live studio audience didn’t laugh at Chandler’s jokes, and the others seem shocked. That kind of anxiety isn’t what we’re used to seeing in one of TV’s most beloved characters. It’s a bit painful to hear, and to realize that his friends didn’t know him as well as they probably thought at the time. We get the sense that they find it painful, too.

Nevertheless, I wish they’d spent more time on stuff like that. The best moments of the reunion show are the ones in which the actors are just talking to one another. Not answering Corden’s banal questions or engaging in Friends-related skits (though they do a nice job with those), but actually catching up in a real way with the co-workers they used to spend every day with. What a strange concept, to spend a day in your own past, having the knowledge you have now.

What was always impressive about the cast of Friends was that they were a true team. They famously negotiated their salaries together, and they famously got along, no scandals, no feuds. But the reunion show tells us they’ve only been in a room together once since Friends ended 17 years ago. You get the feeling they genuinely love one another the way you do genuinely love work friends sometimes. But when you leave the job, most work friendships fade. It’s the kind of thing these characters would have learned, and these actors clearly have.

All in all, I’m glad they didn’t do a scripted “17 years later” show about the characters, because it would’ve been too complicated, a little sad, to know that the only times the gang still gets together are when somebody’s parent died or somebody had a milestone birthday or the like. But had they pretended anything else, it would feel false. Friends was about young adulthood. Older adulthood takes a different turn.

I was happy to see these actors–who appear to be truly decent people–shooting the shit for a day. But the whole experience has left me feeling a little mopey, to be honest. Like Angela in My So-Called Life.

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Written By

Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She's the managing editor of The Gist.

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