As I suppose is true of most couples in the world, my partner and I watch a lot of television together. A diet of new content can get quite exhausting and impossible to get through, without the assuaging effects of what I like to call ‘comfort content’—which F.R.I.E.N.D.S has been for us, for years now. It’s content you can begin at any point, and stop whenever you feel like, and more importantly, it’s risk-free entertainment. It’s the content equivalent of home. It may not be exciting, but pray tell, what exciting experience can claim to heal? F.R.I.E.N.D.S has been a warm blanket I have sought comfort under, and I suppose this is true for millions across the world. I say the dialogues before the characters can, and perhaps for that reason, occasionally, I wonder if it wouldn’t be great, if there were a way to watch it all again as a fresh viewer would. Wouldn’t it be great to once again, choke in laughter at an unexpected Chandler one-liner, like, “Was that tanning place the sun?” Wouldn’t it be great once again to marvel at the physical comedy of a gifted actor like David Schwimmer, without the blunting effect of familiarity? It is for such a new F.R.I.E.N.D.S experience that millions of fans over the world have been yearning for more content. Another season perhaps? A spin-off film perhaps? Now, after innumerable rumours and false alarms, we finally have the Reunion special we wanted. It’s not a scripted episode though, and the actors pretty much play themselves across this hour-and-a-half special. And yet, there is much sentiment and joy to be felt.
Director: Ben Winston
Cast: David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry
Its structure is drawn, it seems, from the elements that comprise a typical F.R.I.E.N.D.S episode. There’s an emotional core on which everything is mounted—in this case, the rarity of the union of the six primary cast members. The special begins by informing you that since the show ended, all six have been together only once. The title credits play to that now-legendary song, and quite movingly, utilises snapshots from this special. There are all those celebrity cameos that populated the F.R.I.E.N.D.S universe. In this special, we see various celebrities including David Beckham, Justin Bieber, Cara Delevingne, and Lady Gaga, with the latter joining Lisa Kudrow for a special rendition of ‘Smelly Cat’, and making a beautiful point concerning the importance of Phoebe’s character. Supporting characters include Gunther, Jill, Heckles, and the Geller parents.
There’s plenty of unexpected comedy, including a Ross-like monologue when David Schwimmer goes on a rant about the difficulty of working with Marcel, the monkey. There’s even romance in the form of subtle, gentle confessions from Schwimmer and Aniston about being attracted to each other during shooting. It’s impossible not to have the heart swell in emotion when the two actors read lines from the scene that leads to their first kiss in the show (The One Where Ross Finds Out). The editing often beautifully, economically, utilises footage from the series to great effect. All these winning elements combine to give us a satisfying experience. Much like your average F.R.I.E.N.D.S episode, this special also shuffles between its settings. One minute, you are in that now-mythical apartment, as the actors enact that famous quiz (from The One with the Embryos). The next, you are at the fountain, the background for the opening credits, as host James Corden tries to eke out an interesting anecdote or two. Pretty soon, you are at the coffee shop, as the actors exchange anecdotes. The special is smart to protect itself from monotony of setting.
Part of the pleasure is having the cast members share our love for the show. It’s a strangely deep camaraderie that reaches out of the television into our living room. When the show opens to David Schwimmer getting overwhelmed at the sight of the set, on some level, you experience this too. It’s a rush to see all six actors form a whole again; it’s a rush to see them all, in their own unique ways, respond to being together again on the sets that turned them from anonymous actors to household names. When Matthew Perry walks in and freezes in emotion, a tear escapes your eye too. After all, these cast members in playing friends who reminded us of our own, have somehow come to feel like our friends too. This sentiment is echoed by one of the many fans from across the world whose video messages are included in the show.
While the actors don’t perform new material in this special, we do see them enact prominent moments from the show. Matt Le Blanc and Matthew Perry turn back time when they lean back on their barcaloungers and go, “Ahhh!” The famous quiz scene, of course, is re-enacted as well, and while Schwimmer poses new questions, I found myself knowing more about the characters than the cast members seemed to. It’s, of course, only natural. Matt Le Blanc confesses later in the special that he cannot stand to watch himself on television, as it’s impossible for him to suspend disbelief. This comes as a revelation even to the other cast members with whom he spent the better part of ten years. Another revelation comes when Matthew Perry speaks of the insecurity he remembers feeling when his jokes did not meet with resounding approval from the live audience. These honest admissions go a long way in elevating the overall experience—and yes, perhaps there should have been more of this, given the conversation format employed for much of this special.
We do get a peek into their world and what it must have been like for them to cope with early fame and global adulation. Remember that these were actors in their 20s getting everything society trained them to aspire for. Matthew Perry, for one, has spoken in many interviews over the years of how fame and money failed to “accomplish anything”. Schwimmer notes that this rare, common experience between them served to strengthen their togetherness, as they could not rely on family or friends to understand it. Again, I wish the show had dug deeper into these spaces and allowed for more insight into the vulnerabilities of these sought-after celebrities. I, for one, would have loved to know how the six deal with their youth immortalised on screen, even as they age and wither like all of us. Matt Le Blanc makes a self-deprecating joke about his weight. Matthew Perry’s speech sounds slurred. Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox and David Schwimmer all seem to be burdened by the weight of many decades of life in this world—till, of course, they read lines and the artiste within them explodes with energy. It’s perhaps Lisa Kudrow who truly turns back the clock with her “infectious, loud laughter”, as Courtney Cox says.
However, the special does seem to have missed a trick by not addressing the strong criticism levied against this series over the years, concerning how its many jokes punch down on vulnerable groups. Do the writers feel differently today? How do the stars respond to such retrospective criticism? Schwimmer, for instance, is careful to throw in disclaimers that he very much loves animals before going ahead with his funny diatribe against Marcel, the monkey; so, it seems that he’s quite aware of the ways of the world today. Or perhaps was it director Ben Winston, in opting to replicate the F.R.I.E.N.D.S experience, feeling compelled to stay away from such serious topics? I did enjoy some lovely directorial touches in this special, including clever segues in between seemingly unrelated segments. For instance, Corden engaging the six actors over laughter decibel levels serves as a smooth lead to the arrival of Maggie Wheeler (who played Janice).
On the whole, while it is certainly not flawless, this reunion does feel like it fulfils its evidently difficult job of satiating the average F.R.I.E.N.D.S fan. I particularly enjoyed that the special serves as a wistful commentary on the fleeting nature of time and relationships, even while paying homage to the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. It’s also a reminder to focus on the light during these dark times. In speaking about the inspiration behind the creation of this show, Marta Kauffman says, “The series is about that time of your life when friends are family.” This wise observation hits you like a punch to the gut and stands testament to the universality of this beloved series and its ability to heal and comfort.
At the very end, as we are shown precious bloopers from the show, we see the six actors fail to control their tears after shooting the final episode (The One Where They Say Goodbye), much like, I suppose, 50 million fans did when it aired on May 6, 2004. Lisa Kudrow is fighting tears but begins laughing, when one of the F.R.I.E.N.D.S makes a funny remark. Her tears concern the tenuous grasp we hold over time, while her laughter concerns the joy contained in its fleeting moments. It’s a fitting image and an accurate representation of my own response to this special.
This review was written for Cinema Express, and was originally uploaded here.