The HBO Max special "treats nostalgia as a kind of absolution," says Megan Garber. "Friends, after all, has not just failed to age well; it showed its failings even when it was young. Its jokes are sometimes homophobic; its plots are occasionally cruel; its cast, and its world, are almost entirely white. The show is popular, and it is, as a separate proposition, beloved. But the affection tends to come with an asterisk. Many other series have similar problems, and use their versions of a reunion or reboot to acknowledge that the world has moved forward around them. The Friends version, instead, goes out of its way to change the subject." Garber adds: "The show featured a world devoid of repercussions. Phoebe, acting as a surrogate for her brother and his wife, gave birth to triplets, and the whole thing was rarely mentioned again. Ross married Emily; she was banished in short order from the show’s world—a mere complication to the on-again, off-again romance of Ross and Rachel. Friends was so devoted to its fantasy—youth, love, the giddy possibilities of each—that it sloughed away any hard fact that did not serve its aspirations. The show had no evident politics. Its characters occasionally struggled with money but never doubted their class. Friends offered a world devoid of the world. The show’s reunion has now continued the tradition. The special is fan service that also attempts to rationalize the fandom itself. It is trying its best to have it both ways—the enforced intimacy of the sitcom and the market imperative of the global franchise. It is a telethon guided by a tautology: Why is Friends so popular? Because Friends is so popular. Nostalgia, the special suggests, is its own value. Ubiquity is its own selling point. How could Friends be wrong, when so many people say it’s right?"
Friends: The Reunion had the emo pull of perfectly executed vanilla: "And Friends is vanilla—by which I do not just mean extremely white, though absolutely that too," says Willa Paskin. "Many a critic, myself included, has banged their head against its marshmallowy surface to try and explain why something so edgeless works so well, but at a certain point, one just has to concede, some things just taste good. The Reunion is nowhere near as yummy, but it goes down fine. Insofar as it has any perspective on the persistence of Friends as a cultural phenomenon (which it mostly doesn’t), the reunion’s position is that it comes down to casting. The special circles back again and again to the excellence of the show’s six actors and their rapport, effectively blurring the line between the characters and the people playing them. Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer aren’t Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, but the reunion accentuates the way that playing the latter forever linked the former, such that watching either is kind of like watching both."
Friends: The Reunion should've been subtitled “The One Where They Ignored Diversity — Again": "At a time when the television landscape is becoming increasingly diverse and inclusive, it’s uncomfortable — if not outright inappropriate — to raise a glass to a sitcom that was so blind to the multiculturalism of the world where it took place," says Greg Braxton. "It’s a conversation that was already happening when the series, which premiered in 1994, marked its 25th anniversary in 2019. Which makes the failure to confront the subject head-on in the long-delayed special, appearing a year after the murder of George Floyd sparked massive protests against police brutality and amid the ongoing conversation about race relations and white supremacy in this country, all the more glaring."
Friends: The Reunion was enjoyable, but it was content for content's sake: "And that’s the purpose of Friends: The Reunion: to give fans a nearly two-hour bath in their favorite world, or some version of it," says Alissa Wilkinson. "That’s why not many truly revealing anecdotes about Friends — anecdotes that also situate the series in the late 1990s — come up in the special, or are hinted at only obliquely. The public image machine is as tight as ever...The charm of this reunion special is that it is comfort viewing, pitched at a level to suit those who already rely on Friends for comfort. Rewatching episodes on an endless loop holds a wonderful predictability — I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, it really is pleasant — in that you know you’ll laugh, and there’s no uncertainty about what will happen. The team behind the special is well aware that this is how many, if not most, of Friends’ fans experience the series in 2021. They’re just leaning into it. To be clear: I really enjoyed watching Friends: The Reunion. I’m of the microgeneration that talks about where we were when we watched the series finale, and it was fun to revisit that moment with people I feel like I know. But my pleasure in watching was hollow and kind of sleepy. I didn’t learn anything interesting, and I wasn’t left with much to think about. The special is curiously empty, aside from some touching moments of camaraderie and affection between the cast members, and the potential discomfort of realizing we’re all getting older. To really dig into what Friends means and meant and tells us about ourselves then and now — to assess what Friends truly is — might have unearthed some uncomfortable truths. Instead, Friends: The Reunion is a piece of streaming content that exists to reinforce its own existence, a special for a special’s sake. It’s a way for a big company to capitalize on popular IP it owns and can’t reboot or sequel-ize in any other way. It’s fat-free red meat for fans, tasty and inconsequential. And because it tickles a very particular spot on my brain, I’m happy to gobble it right up. In that way, I guess, it’s an almost perfect encapsulation of 2021."
Friends: The Reunion didn't feel that special because the cast continues being omnipresent in our lives: "Fact is, we know most of these Friends factoids and others because the show and its cast continue to be a significant presence in culture," says Melanie McFarland. "Every member of its cast is working, some more than others, and any updates on their personal lives are the briefest of Google searches away. The show's 25th anniversary wasn't even two years ago, and the barrage of coverage surrounding that contains almost every bit of trivia you could possibly guess at or desire. This is why so little about the special feels significant or necessary for anybody save for the show's diehards." But there is one burning question that should've been asked, but wasn't. "Let's talk about what isn't answered, starting with the question generated by the nostalgic fun fact listed on the opening title card. 'Since the finale, the six cast members have been in a room only once. Until today . . .' Considering how much energy and focus is expended on selling the genuine lasting friendship the cast has shared all these years one would think Corden's natural first question would be, 'Why is that?' This is never definitively asked nor answered. Maybe the special's producers assume everyone watching recalls that everybody but Perry reunited for a James Burrows tribute in 2016. (Perry was committed to a stage production in London at the time.) Maybe they gambled we'd be more moved by knowing they still enjoy each other's company now."
COVID restrictions impacted how Friends trio of Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright interacted with the cast: "Everything was dictated and compromised by COVID," says executive producer Bright. "There were COVID cops on the set. We couldn’t go out and walk around. We did a little bit, but not really in the way that we had a moment with it. They were shooting during the time, so we could only spend so much time (on set). But seeing it all put back together was stunning. They had the art director and the prop person from the show put it back together. The detail was exact; it was like it never left...We were there on the two shooting days. Talking about old times and that kind of stuff couldn’t happen because of COVID. We saw the cast on both days before and after shooting and that was pretty much it. And then we saw the show. We got to experience it more as the audience than as the producers. Having these gushy moments with all nine of us together again and talking about old times couldn’t happen." Co-creator Kauffman adds: "The last time the nine of us have been in a room together is 17 years ago. So yeah, it was an incredibly emotional experience and truly sweet." And co-creator Crane says: "To get that quick hug in and to see everyone together on the stage, it was amazing. We didn’t get to hang out, but it was lovely."
There was no margin for error in producing Friends: The Reunion: The original idea was to film everything indoors, "with the plan to build out Stage 24 into something resembling the setup for the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special, and lean into the glam with audience members in formal wear," reports the Los Angeles Times' Yvonne Villarreal. "It was (David) Schwimmer who suggested moving the segment outdoors because of the pandemic. The biggest logistical challenge, unsurprisingly, was finding dates that worked for the six cast members and would align with a window in which Stage 24, which remains one of the busiest stages on the Warner Bros. lot, would be available for five weeks. (Three weeks to build the sets, a week for rehearsal, the two-day shoot, and the dismantling of it all.)" Director Ben Winston admits: "I was most worried that somebody would get COVID in the lead-up to it. There was no margin for error; if somehow, at the last minute, somebody tested positive or whatever, then it’s over. So I was always nervous about that. And I think just the weight of expectation of this show. I’d be lying if I didn’t have a bit of butterflies in my stomach.”
Winners and losers of the Friends reunion: Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc and Ross and Rachel Shippers were among the winners, while James Corden, David Schwimmer, The Monkey and Rachel Greene were among the losers.