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Friends: The Reunion is a misguided, confusing mess that plays like DVD bonus box set material

  • The highly anticipated one-hour, 45-minute HBO Max Friends reunion special is "stale when it’s not overly sentimental and self-congratulatory, relying on distracting stunts in place of authentic fun," says Kevin Fallon, adding: "After watching the entire thing, I still don’t know who would be blown away by the special. To clarify, I’m a massive fan and fervent defender of the show. Perhaps that’s why I was so bored." As Fallon points out, Friends: The Reunion is full of information that Friends fans already know. "Title cards at the opening of the special are set to morose music that suggests we’re about to watch a biopic about a cherished cast that was not only estranged, but all tragically killed," he says. "They alert us that this group has been in a room together just once during those 17 years. The marketing for the reunion has promoted that factoid often and without a hint of strangeness, as if 17 years isn’t an absurd amount of time for good friends to stop hanging out. Of course, there wasn’t a reported $2.5 million each on the table before. To earn that money, the six leads were forced to sit down with James Corden. They answer questions about the series that are familiar to anyone who has watched any of the cast members on any late-night show in the last two decades: Questions about their auditions, about their favorite episodes, about when they knew they hit it big, about whether they’d ever do a revival. (They won’t.) The staging of the special is thrilling, placed in front of the fountain where the original title credits were shot. It is truly surreal to see the six friends together again. The conversation, however, is less stimulating. Lots of 'we’re a family' and how, upon seeing each other, they 'fell right back into it.' In fact, they’ve done nearly this very thing before with all present except Perry, who was working abroad. It was just five years ago, when they gathered to answer the same questions, that time asked by Andy Cohen during a James Burrows tribute.' ... They ignored darker, more emotional elements of the show’s run, like (Matthew) Perry’s addiction issues and how the cast handled it, the series’ racial blindspots, or the backlash to certain plot ideas (Rachel and Joey?). Nothing particularly dramatic or untoward was discussed...There are clips of iconic episodes and blooper reels—in other words, more stuff that most fans have already seen. This special has been billed as one of the most anticipated entertainment events of all time, a multimillion-dollar lynchpin to the success of a major streaming service. Yet it plays like the bonus material you might get on a DVD box set purchased 20 years ago."


    • Friends: The Reunion shouldn't feel so desperate for viewers' attention: "When it’s just the six of them, the Friends reunion can feel a bit like seeing the show," says Ben Travers. "Hanging out with your old pals! Listening to them catch up! Laughing at shared memories! There’s even a recurring segment where the six cast members recreate 'The One With the Embryos' trivia game: (Matthew) Perry and (Matt) LeBlanc team up against (Jennifer) Aniston, (Courteney) Cox, and (Lisa) Kudrow, while (David) Schwimmer lobs questions about the show at each team. But much like how the show itself succumbed to the phenomenon of Friends in later seasons — adding big name guest stars, straining to keep Ross and Rachel apart, keeping its cast of stars from leaving for better gigs — the reunion spends an inordinate amount of time emphasizing the series’ cultural and global significance, while bringing in random celebs to vouch for the show’s bona fides, as if their fandom somehow speaks to the show’s value: 'Popular people endorsing a popular thing makes them both… more… popular?' (Seriously: Why is David Beckham here?) Just seeing the core cast, 17 years older and inhabiting the sets out of character, is a little bizarre, but what makes the reunion so much weirder (to the point where I had to take a break 20 minutes in) is how desperate it feels. So much emphasis is placed on superficial, super-staged moments — 'Look, look! Joey and Chandler are sitting in their chairs again!' — and so little room is made for genuine thought."
    • Only the six Friends know what their unique experience was like -- so why does the special keep bringing in other people to talk about it?: The HBO Max special proves to be unique in contrast to the ubiquitous Zoom reunions during the pandemic in having all the cast members in the same room. "That said, the simplicity of Zoom get-togethers also means that the focus is entirely on people talking and telling stories, where Friends: The Reunion can never leave well enough alone," says Alan Sepinwall. And every part of the show that’s not just the six of them talking struggles to justify its existence. There are seven distinct pieces stitched together for the reunion: 1) the actors talking on the stage together; 2) the actors doing a new version of the trivia contest from one of the most beloved episodes, 'The One With the Embryos,' to see who best remembers plot points from the show; 3) the actors periodically doing table reads of famous scenes, with their new performances intercut with clips of the originals; 4) the actors all dressed up and sitting in front of the fountain from the opening credits sequence, being interviewed by James Corden in front of a small crowd of socially-distanced fans; 5) new interviews with Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane, plus executive producer Kevin Bright, explaining the history of both the show and the phenomenon; 6) testimonials from fans, both civilians and fellow celebrities like David Beckham and BTS; and 7) the actors occasionally watching clips and bloopers from the show. It is, as that paragraph might suggest, a wildly overproduced affair, especially since several of those pieces have their own smaller segments, like a bizarre fashion show of memorable Friends outfits during one of the Corden passages. And most of the material involving people beyond the six cast members seems there to try to explain why Friends is such a big deal, when odds are that anyone who starts streaming it on HBO Max is doing so because they have built-in affection for the show. Yes, it’s touching to hear people around the world tell stories of personal strife that Ross and Rachel helped them get through. But it’s not necessary, because similar stories can be and have been told about any popular piece of entertainment."
    • Friends: The Reunion is everything fans hoped it would be: "The special felt effortless and crisp," says Kelly Lawler. "Editing kept the 105 minute  reunion going, although some segments could have been cut to make it snappier, such as random celebrities like BTS and Malala Yousafzai talking about the series. Although it's lovely to hear Mindy Kaling discuss how much she enjoyed watching Monica and Chandler hide their relationship in Season 5, it was far more enjoyable when the cast cracked up reading the scene in which Phoebe sees them having sex. Unexpected moments like that, beyond rehashing the history of the show and how each actor was cast, that made the special, well, special. It was able to recreate the magic of Friends without pretending that 17 years haven't passed since Friends left NBC."
    • Even for a Friends hater, the reunion was special: "I sat down to watch Friends: The Reunion....with a healthy dose of skepticism," says Scaachi Koul, who wrote about how Friends actually sucked as it approached its 25th anniversary in 2019. "It’s not a new episode, it’s not scripted content, and it’s not necessary. But I’m not so proud; I can admit when I’m wrong. I thought the Friends reunion would be mealymouthed sap (a lot of it is) and that they’d conveniently sidestep elements of their history that betray the show’s rampant sexism, anti-gay, fatphobic, and anti-trans jokes, but I was surprised to be so touched by the actual people who made this wretched show. There I was, clutching my little Grinch heart, feeling it growing in size as I watched adults cry over how one of them couldn’t remember their lines and hid their script in the sink." She adds: "It’s fine, formatwise. But frankly, the best way to watch Friends: The Reunion is as a psychodrama about the actors. It’s been decades since they were on the show together, the finale aired in 2004, and nothing in their lives looks the same. Aniston never quite became the movie star she was supposed to be, while her personal life dominated the tabloids. Matt LeBlanc’s failed Joey spinoff was conveniently left out of the documentary, and he does increasingly resemble his Episodes character, an aging television star, more and more. Courteney Cox appeared in Dirt, a show you’ve probably never heard of. David Schwimmer seems fine, and still looks like Robert Kardashian, all hangdog face. Lisa Kudrow’s work on The Comeback still hasn’t been appropriately lauded. As for Matthew Perry, he appeared anxious and off-kilter in the reunion, speaking sparingly. What would have been better than Friends: The Reunion? Frankly, a conversation between the six of them without James Corden and his flight attendant maroon suit, one where they could talk about the enormous impact the show had on them and the trajectory of their lives forevermore. Imagine exiting the Friends machine in your mid-thirties, the weight of everyone’s expectations on you, waiting for what you’ll do next, eagerly anticipating your inevitable decline? How could anything you do come remotely close to Friends?"
    • Friends: The Reunion stands in stark contrast to HBO Max's acclaimed Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion last fall: "HBO Max did manage to stage a smart, fun, surprisingly moving in-person reunion last November, which now makes for a fascinating counterpart to the overwhelmingly shiny, happy people of the Friends special," says Caroline Framke. "When The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast reunited last November for the show’s 30th anniversary, it was fair to assume that it would follow in other reunions’ footsteps as a relatively harmless jaunt down memory lane. But in his role as host, Will Smith took a few cues from his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith by bringing the cast to a metaphorical Red Table Talk that made room for catharsis amidst all the fond remembrances....Friends: The Reunion doesn’t have any interest in going down that kind of road — though for a moment, it almost seems possible it might. Perry has mentioned in the past about how his addiction struggles impacted his time on the show to the point that he had to enter rehab. The special ultimately declines to discuss any his troubled experience explicitly, but it nonetheless lingers around the margins with palpable unease. When his castmates talk about staying in touch with each other, he cracks a joke about how he doesn’t hear 'from anyone' so dryly that it’s impossible to tell if it’s actually a joke. Later, as the rest of the cast laughs about the takes they messed up and how the audience reacted, Perry remembers how he felt every night 'like I was going to die if they didn’t laugh,' and acknowledges that 'it wasn’t healthy, for sure.' The segment lingers just long enough on this moment for Kudrow to respond with concern that they never knew that, at which point it cuts to the next nostalgia trip."
    • Friends: The Reunion is like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife: "HBO Max’s Friends: The Reunion, a long-awaited unscripted gathering of the six stars of NBC’s Friends, is like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife — neither as circumstantially convenient as butter-spreading or as inevitably chaotic as turkey-carving," says Daniel Fienberg. "Director Ben Winston — fresh off the triumph of this spring’s partially quarantined Grammys — has approached the reunion as a series of games, performances and structured bits, a relentlessly busy 104 minutes that yield an impressive array of funny and emotional moments likely to generally, if not fully, satisfy many or even most dedicated fans. The special is a complex thing with many moving parts. What I personally wanted, though, was a simple thing: I wanted Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer sitting on a stage telling stories. That was all I required from this thing and it’s surely here in some capacity, but the choice has been made to sacrifice depth for volume, one knife for ever-so-many spoons."
    • It's impossible not to notice how Friends: The Reunion treats Matthew Perry: "Perry is frequently framed out of group shots," says Dave Holmes. "He is often hidden behind other cast members’ heads, and in at least one significant group scene, he’s not there at all. Schwimmer seems like he’s really stepping up with the quips and asides, as though he knows he needs to fill a void. According to unnamed sources quoted in The Sun, the explanation for some noticeably slurred speech is that Perry had a dental procedure on the day of the reunion, which opens up more questions, like: if whole CBS sitcoms can be scuttled to make way for the first season of Friends, can’t a root canal or a reunion special get pushed a couple weeks? If a cast member was so fragile at the peak of the show that he fell apart when a joke wouldn’t land, why put him on camera now, in this condition, in this vicious social media landscape? I want to believe the best, I want a very talented and much-loved actor to get and be and stay healthy, and one cannot really address the speculation without implicitly speculating oneself, which I will not do. It is a real Christina Pickle. I just hope he’s okay."
    • Whenever the action moves away from Stage 24, things start to fall apart: Friends: The Reunion "is a bit of a mishmash: Part talk show, part testimonial, part clip-fueled retrospective, and part family reunion" in which the cast is game, says Kristen Baldwin, adding: "Whenever the action moves away from Stage 24, things start to fall apart. The celebrity testimonials add little, except to the reunion's runtime. (In case you were wondering, David Beckham is a Monica.) Corden's interview is banal, though he manages to unearth one (obviously thoroughly vetted in advance) revelation about two of the stars. Surprise guests are treated to awkward, hello-goodbye appearances which are made all the more uncomfortable by Corden's over-animated cheerleading. ('What about that! What a treat!') There is also a very unnecessary fashion show of 'iconic costumes.' At one point, the cast watches a pre-taped segment featuring fans around the globe rhapsodizing about Friends. Nancy from Ghana says the comedy saved her from a deep depression. Nobel Prize winning activist Malala Yousafzai reveals that her favorite episode is 'The One With the Routine.' But rather than allowing Corden to ask the cast for their reactions to those or any of the other testimonials they just watched, the show moves right to an audience Q&A…which leads to yet another story about how much David Schwimmer hated Marcel the monkey. (Breaking news: EW first reported this fact in 1995.) No doubt Corden was hamstrung in his interview by pre-existing terms and conditions, but sheesh, for $2 million-plus apiece, surely the cast could have handled a little spontaneity."
    • Oddly, the sum total of Friends: The Reunion is somewhat sloppy and packed with filler: "For one thing, aside from the assiduous Schwimmer, the rest of the well-compensated cast appear to be on cruise control down self-congratulatory memory lane," says Dominic Patten. "Additionally, unlike the felicitous Friends itself, the special steps all over a lot of its cues and beats. Proving that brevity is indeed the soul of wit, the sprawling show is often hackneyed where you’d expect spontaneity and slipshod where you’d expect slick. Crawling out of a year of pandemic that has been packed with hit (A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote) and miss reunions, the Friends special is hopefully the beginning of the end of a tired notion. But again, hard-core fans of Friends won’t be bothered with all that. For that multitude, this is the 21st century equivalent of the Beatles in Hollywood, the best of all possible worlds in the absence of new episodes."
    • The problem is, for such a well-loved (and well-examined) series, there is very little new info here: "We know the Friends became best friends in real life because they were all experiencing the same huge rise in fame at the same time; it’s literally the lede in Vanity Fair’s extensive 2012 Friends oral history," says Gwen Ihnat. "We know that Schwimmer hated the monkey. One of the bloopers in the blooper reel was already shown on that Conan special. There are a few juicy revelations—like an intra-cast crush—but they’re unfortunately few and far between. Some additions to the special are inspired, though, like having real-life models—and some surprising famous faces—wearing some of the series’ iconic outfits in a runway fashion show, or a restaging of 'Embryos' all-Friends trivia contest. Still, the special’s most valuable moments are seeing the six Friends together again on the set where they spent 10 years of their lives. Sure, there’s a lot of 'Oh, my gosh, look at that.' But the hugs and tears are real, as is the backstage huddle, LeBlanc’s familiar teasing of his former co-stars, Aniston’s surprisingly loud laugh, the general disbelief at the passage of time."
    • James Corden hosting makes the reunion feel painful: "The inescapable James Corden, impersonating an interviewer, poses questions of the how-does-it feel/tell-us-about-it school of journalistic inquiry during the onstage portion of the show," says John Anderson. "The awkwardness can be painful. 'Do you stay in touch?' he asks, with Ms. Kudrow offering a diplomatic 'not every day' and Mr. Perry muttering, 'I don’t hear from anyone.' You’re not sure he’s kidding."
    • Friends: The Reunion makes a fitting Gen X bookend to the reunion of The Real World: New York earlier this year: "You could think of Friends, which premiered in 1994, as kind of a scripted answer to the original Real World, which aired two years earlier," says James Poniewozik. "That follow-up was more willing to dig into the effects of time, what has and hasn’t aged well in the original season and the cast’s flaws and challenges (including clashes on the set of the new show). Friends: The Reunion is not reality TV, nor a news report. So there’s plenty you won’t hear about: the contentious contract negotiations; criticisms of the show for casting mainly white actors; personal or health issues. When an audience member asks what the actors disliked about making the show, Corden jokingly chides, 'Way to keep it positive!' (The collective answer throws Marcel the monkey under the bus.) But then, nobody watched Friends to be reminded of the world’s woes. Those are what come after the finale, when you move out of that starter apartment and take on a mortgage. This was about seeing the stars together, supposedly for the last time — 'We’re not doing this again in 15 years,' Courteney Cox says. After which the reruns, where the past stays frozen in place, will be there for you."
    • A brief history of Friends semi-reunions: Jimmy Kimmel was able to reunite Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow several times, while Aniston did a sketch for The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2013 with Matthew Perry and Cox. The Friends stars have also guested on each other's shows. Aniston has appeared on Cox's Dirt and Cougar Town, while Cox appeared with Perry on Go On.
    • HBO Max should've premeired the reunion during primetime in Friends' old Thursday timeslot instead of in the middle of the night: "I really think HBO Max missed a marketing opportunity by not having the #FriendsReunion debut at 8 p.m. EDT (Thursday), vs just dropping at 3 a.m. EDT like everything else," says Josef Adalian. "Why *not* debut in the show's longtime linear timeslot, making it more of a social media event? In fact, Sky…which runs all HBO shows-- originally planned to debut the Friends Reunion at 8 pm UK time, but moved it up to coincide with US release (because of spoilers.) Zero good reason I can see to release something this big at 3 a.m., esp. since Max is mostly US subs."
    • Why Paul Rudd and other famous Friends alums didn't appear in the special: “I think during a pandemic, it’s really hard to get everybody where you want to be," says director Ben Winston, who had to receive special permission to leave his pandemic bubble to film the special. "And the other thing, of course, is we have no flexibility. It was one night that those six (main cast members) were available. The timing of it was incredibly difficult. So, you know, if you weren’t available on the seventh of April at 8 p.m., then, sadly, they weren’t able to be part of it. Yeah, we couldn’t get everybody in. It’s just one of those things. I hope people will think about all the great things that are in there rather than the things that aren’t.”
    • Director Ben Winston's first cut of Friends: The Reunion was three hours: “It was rubbish,” says Winston, who earlier this year was juggling the Grammys, Corden's Late Late Show and the Friends reunion. “I believe if it didn’t make it in, it wasn’t good enough. There are no extras.” Winston says the entire process took five weeks, from several weeks to set up Stage 24 to its Friends glory days to three days of actual shooting. To prepare, Winston says, "I watched all 236 episodes, I read a couple of books about Friends, and I met with the cast a few times over Zoom to get to know them better." Since all six cast members are producers on the special, he had to consult with them individually on what his plans were for the special. One idea was having Lisa Kudrow sing "Smelly Cat" with a famous singer. “We went through a few names, and we both agreed that Gaga, if we could get her, would be the ultimate one because she associates with and feels close to Phoebe in so many ways, as Gaga says on the show," he says. "That was a really beautiful moment. And Lady Gaga jumped at the chance to do it.”

    TOPICS: Friends, HBO Max, Ben Winston, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, James Corden, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Retro TV

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