There has never been a sitcom as successful as Friends. Between 1994 and 2004, it was watched by 25 million people a week in the US. Seventeen years after the final episode aired, Friends was still the fourth most watched show in the world. So it’s no surprise that the new Friends: The Reunion is a big deal.
One of my friends, a fellow super fan, told me she drank a bottle of wine before watching it and recommended I do the same. I lack self-control so drank two, passed out, and then had to face the 94-minute special sober and hungover.
It was unclear what the reunion set out to be. An extended interview with the cast? A documentary about the show’s origins? An hour in and it still wasn’t clear.
James Corden did the interviewing, because somebody in the entertainment world has apparently decided James Corden has to be a big part of everything. He was so giddy with excitement he failed to ask a single interesting question. He is both in everything and ruins everything — and that’s not good.
I hate to sound superficial, but you honestly can’t watch the reunion show without observing the cast’s appearance. Not because the Friends have aged, but because their faces are so puffed and filled that it looks like there has been some mass allergic reaction on set.
There remains a certain warmth between the cast, but you can’t help but wonder how sincere their fondness for each other is, given that it’s taken 17 years and $2.5 million each for the six of them to sit down together. The opening title card points out that only once since the show finished have the six cast members united.
We didn’t need to see a catwalk featuring Cindy Crawford, Justin Bieber and Cara Delevingne in ‘iconic outfits’ from the show, nor did we need to see Lady Gaga harmonizing ‘Smelly Cat’ with Lisa Kudrow awkwardly looking on. I have never found myself wondering which episode of Friends David Beckham watches when he is alone in a hotel room missing home, or which character the Nobel winner Malala Yousafzai identifies the most with. But we got all of that. And more.
The show has received flack in recent years for its lack of diversity. In a half-hearted attempt to rectify this, a totally random man in India tells the camera how important the show was to him when his father was diagnosed with cancer, a young woman in Ghana tells how the show saved her from her suicidal thoughts. I have watched every episode of Friends at least five times but even a superfan like me thinks it’s a bit of a reach to claim the healing powers of a sitcom.
Despite the show being criticized for being too white, the cast too privileged, too straight, and anti-LGBTQ (Chandler’s dad is transgender and the butt of many a joke) Friends continues to be watched by millions. In 2015, 11 years after the final episode aired the cast each made $20 million a year in royalties. Warner Brothers is thought to make $1 billion a year from syndications.
Friends: The Reunion made no profound attempt to explain why the show was so successful and for that we can be grateful. There is nothing more boring than trying to intellectualize such a mass cultural offering. Friends was made to be light and entertaining. It was a form of escapism that romanticized what it was to be young and beautiful. The Friends lived a life that most twenty-somethings dream of: a loft apartment in Manhattan, a revolving door of handsome love interests (George Clooney and Brad Pitt to name a few). They lived happy lives without having to worry too much about being successful.
In the reunion the actors discussed how the show is set at the time in your life ‘when your friends are your family’. When the characters grew up and had their own families the whole point of the show no longer worked. Friends: The Reunion proves that point. Still, the first thing I did when it finished was to watch a real episode of Friends as a palate cleanser. Why? I don’t really know but that’s the beauty of the show.