There’s Something A Little Bit Sad About The ‘Friends’ Reunion

Let's call it what it is: the DVD special feature for the streaming age.

Friends reunion

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Could it be any more hyped? Recently, all six Friends stars posted a throwback Instagram photo of the cast with just the words “it’s happening…” underneath — and the internet momentarily broke. We didn’t need the press release: everyone knew what they meant.

Actually, they kind of knew what they meant.

It turns out the upcoming Friends special — which, yes, is of course tentatively titled ‘The One Where They Get Back Together’ — is not a reboot or stand-alone episode. Instead, it’s an hour-long, unscripted special which will unite the cast and creators back on Stage 24 of the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, where Friends was filmed for the entirety of its 10 season run.

It will arrive sometime in May for the US launch of new streaming service HBO Max — where it’ll sit alongside, naturally, all of Friends. The special reportedly is costing US $20 million to make, all six stars taking home at least US $2.25 million each for their nostalgia trip. But that’s a pittance to the US $425m HBO Max (owned by Warner Media) paid for the exclusive 5-year streaming rights for the show’s backlog.

Friends, in short, is big business — considering the entertainment industry’s continual reliance on existing IPs this past decade, it shouldn’t be surprising.

Regardless, it’s disappointing to see so much culturally spent on what’s essentially comfort food. And it’s hard to imagine what exactly this reunion will offer other than behind-the-scenes stories and clip packages — the sort of thing usually relegated to a fill-in episode, elevated to the main event.

Well, They’ll Be There For You

Despite ending more than 15 years ago, Friends has found a new life in the streaming age. On Netflix, where it’s been available to stream since 2015 (until this year, thanks to HBO Max’s acquisition), it’s reportedly their #1 show.

And in Australia, it was a huge get for Stan, where it still streams (no news on HBO Max here yet), seeing one of their biggest advertising blitzes, which included a cross-country travelling ‘Friends couch’ you could take photos on. Clearly, it’s worth spending money on.

It’s far from just nostalgic comfort viewing, either. Like The Office, Friends has caught on with the Gen Z crowd, despite being about aggressively Gen X people.

In an excellent New York feature on the show’s everlasting appeal, last year Adam Sternbergh interviewed fans old and new. He honed in on the idea that Friends is a “wish fulfilment” sitcom, filled with dreamy apartments, lots of friends, and love prospects with almost no responsibilities — to the point where Ross’ son pretty much disappears.

That fulfilment only keeps on offering more and more satisfaction as time goes on, particularly around the novel idea that six friends ‘do nothing’ together.

“More than once,” he writes, “when asked about the appeal of the show, a 20-something quoted back to me an iconic line that Monica says to Rachel in the pilot: ‘Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.'”

“They explain that they’ve adopted the line as a kind of generational motto. Which the line was intended to be, sort of, except for a different generation. No matter — the notion has an enduring appeal, especially given that, for 20-somethings now, the real world seems suckier than ever.”

Co-creator Kaufmann agrees, telling Sternberg the show gained popularity post 9/11 due to its optimistic tone. Psychoanalysing a show’s audience aside, the show simply holds up (bar some poorly aged-plots and its overwhelming whitewashed New York) as a low-barrier, middle-brow comedy about a group of hot people hanging out. What’s not to like?

And where other ’90s sitcoms played on adversarial relationships (Frasier, Home Improvement, Mad About You), Friends lived up to its name — inspiring the current trend of buddy-sitcoms (Broad City, Parks & Recreation et. al Mike Shur shows), which prove you catch more laughs from honey than vinegar, no matter the year.

It’s a smart tactic from HBO Max, too, to launch with a beloved series. Comparing the cultural clout of Disney+ against Apple TV, launched around the same time, speaks for itself. One pulls from decades of nostalgia, remastered and, in many cases, rebooted: the other favours new IP, mistaking Netflix’s success as replicable, when in reality, people were just bingeing Friends.

When In Doubt, Reboot

Still, the reunion: why do we have our hearts set on it?

Time and time again reboots have failed to offer much more than nostalgia before flatlining (Will & Grace, Fuller House), proving that parading around old sets doesn’t make for good TV (or, in the case of Roseanne, it’s a hit but the figure it’s built around isn’t built for these times). The cast and the creators of Friends know this, continually shutting down rumours ever since the show first ended.

Creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman have repeatedly said they’re happy with where they left the show; Matthew Perry went so far as to joke he’d had nightmares about it returning and ruining its own legacy; and just a few months ago, Jennifer Aniston said a rehash “won’t be even close to as good what it was, so why do it? It would ruin it”. They’re right.

It’s true that some reboots are a wonderful addendum to a show, as the case with Veronica Mars and Twin Peaks. But it’s hard to see how Friends could benefit from catching up with Ross, Phoebe, Chandler, Rachel, Joey and Monica in 2020: what more needs to be said?

Even a Metro UK article attempting to get excited about all the questions a reboot could answer struggles. They land on the likes of ‘Is Gunther still obsessed with Rachel?’ and ‘What the hell happened to Ben?’ suggesting we’d learn more about Ross’ son who isn’t mentioned from Season 8 onwards. Great!

Plus, the only way the show could get the six fictional 50somethings together would have to be incredibly convoluted, no doubt looking like fan-fiction with a budget. The show is too set in a particular period of life to exist outside of it: best to leave the past as it lays. Plus, family life and middle-age responsibilities are far from a Gen Z wish fulfilment.

But still, the fans want it.

They demand it, as do the press, who have asked the cast about it for years, no matter what project Jennifer Aniston or Matthew Perry were supposed to be promoting. The reunion, then, comes off as a (revenue-making) platitude from the actors: they won’t put back on a plaid shirt or a Rachel wig, but they’ll sit down to chat for a cool $2m. Chatting about what, exactly, isn’t clear. Thankfully, there’s actually been a televised Friends reunion to give us an idea.

Back in 2016, five of six stars (Matthew Perry was in London for a play, but sent a video message) reunited for an hour-long special tribute to James Burrows, who has directed a lot of hit TV in his time — including, of course, Friends.

And they, uh, didn’t talk about much. Or, more bluntly, The Guardian called it “intensely boring” and a “total car crash”. The highlight, according to them, was a tidbit about Aniston, Courtney Cox and Lisa Kudrow eating the ‘Jennifer salad’ every lunch for 10 years.

“We know Aniston made it, but what was in it?,” Brian Moylan wrote. “The host, Andy Cohen, never followed up, so we’ll always be left wondering.”

Maybe we’ll find out this time. It’s harsh (and probably wrong) to suggest the stars don’t have much more to offer, but it’s equally harsh to 2020 if we’re hyping this reunion as a major cultural moment.

Instead, let’s call it what it is: the DVD special feature for the streaming age. Then again, dedicated fans have long bought re-releases just for the new additions. And who doesn’t want Friends?