Friends: the Reunion review – The One That Is a Nostalgia Fest and No More

The magic between the six Friends as they return to the apartment is undeniably cheering. But no one needs to see James Corden – or Justin Bieber dressed as a potato

There was never any real danger that Friends: the Reunion would let in too much light upon the magic that was created in 1994 and held, on average, 25 million US viewers a week in its thrall for the next decade. The special was intended to mark the launch of the US streaming service HBO Max (and as sand kicked in the face of their rival Netflix, from whom it has poached the entire 236-episode run). Although Covid delayed things, it was still never going to be anything other than a nostalgic celebration of times past-but-still-in-lucrative-syndication.

The reunion marks the first time the six actors – probably for those 10 years the most famous in the world – have all been together publicly since the show ended. They arrive one by one on the re-created set. David Schwimmer first, calm and thoughtful, noting original features and the spot “Jen and I had our first kiss”, followed by Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston (dissolving into happy tears), ebullient Matt LeBlanc (“What are you guys doing here!”), Courteney Cox (happily tearful too) and finally a nervy Matthew Perry (“Could you BE any later!” cries LeBlanc).

One of the three main strands of the show sees them roaming around the set, swapping memories – they used to eat every meal together for the first couple of years, Cox used to write her lines on the apartment’s kitchen table – and stories. If a lot of them will already be known to fans, there remains a thrilling fascination to watching the Friends – the friends – reminisce, chat and play off each other with an easy, unfakeable camaraderie. You can see the chemistry that made them and the show so much more than the sum of its parts, and there is something undeniably cheering, especially after the tumultuous year we have all had, about seeing that something good has endured and to watch it come to life again.

Friends: The Reunion.
‘I hate Marcel the monkey!’ ... Friends: The Reunion. Photograph: Warner Bros

The rest is a decidedly mixed bag. The least successful segment is the “official” interview with the whole cast, in front of a live, socially-distanced audience, hosted by James Corden. Did they consider Ross and Rachel to have been on a break? Who has the loudest laugh? When can everyone just collect their fee and go? In a moment of catharsis, Schwimmer reveals a hatred of Marcel the monkey – and the live grubs he was fed on the actor’s shoulder between takes – that remains gloriously undimmed by the passing of the years. “Time,” he ended, “for Marcel to fuck off.” But the main point of interest, though we probably shouldn’t admit to such prurient urges, comes when Schwimmer talks about “crushing hard on Jen” and it eventually being reciprocated but never when they were both single “so that line was never crossed.” “Bullshit,” coughs LeBlanc into his hand, which brings the house down. The interview culminates in a fashion show in which Cara Delevingne sports the holiday armadillo costume, Justin Bieber is ‘Spudnik’ and Cindy Crawford wears Ross’s leather pants. The running time suddenly felt as much of a stretch as the trousers were in 1995.

There is a rather lovely set of testimonies from fans around the globe about how the show helped them through times of need and loneliness. But then there is also David Beckham, recapping his favourite scene for seemingly no other reason than he is mates with Corden.

There are table reads of key scenes that feel uncanny in their reproductions of the originals (especially after another segment reveals that very few of the Friends have watched much of the show at all, let alone repeatedly as viewers do – it has been watched 10bn times across all platforms). Plus there are interviews with Marta Kauffman, David Crane (co-creators of the show) and Kevin Bright (who executive produced it), which yield little new insight but – well, it’s just a comfort to have them there. Contributions from former guest stars such as Reese Witherspoon and Tom Selleck add to the love-in.

There is nothing about the features of Friends that have dated badly – the now-famous dearth of characters of colour, the fat jokes, the homophobic and transphobic edges detected by many. And any hints of unhappiness among the memories are swiftly glossed over. At one point, Perry, unexpectedly by far the quietest of the group, says that on filming days, “I felt like I was going to die if I didn’t get a laugh – I’d sweat, have convulsions”. Brief sympathy is given, but we were away before the looming public knowledge of Perry’s addiction problems during the early seasons could spoil the mood.

We can call it The One That Was Just Good Enough. The One That Was a Nostalgia Fest Not Revisionist History. The One That Did What It Needed to Do. The One That Was Fine.

Friends: the Reunion is on HBO Max in the US, and Sky One and streaming service NOW in the UK, from 27 May.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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