‘Friends’ was the escapist sitcom you weren’t embarrassed to love
Fact: In 2004, I turned 30 years old. I also quit smoking. I also entered the Society of Jesus. “Friends” also aired its last original episode. Obviously, some of these events had more significance in my life than others. Yet in retrospect, they all combined to mark a seismic shift in my life as I moved from young adulthood to just plain adult.
“Friends,” a show about people in their 20s grappling with the slings and arrows of adulthood in the big city (New York), happened to occur exactly during the entirety of the decade I was in my 20s grappling with the slings and arrows of adulthood in the big city (Chicago). So, this Gen-X’er carried perhaps a bit more nostalgic weight than most on his flannelled shoulders as he approached HBO Max’s “Friends: The Reunion.”
The great thing about “Friends” was that it always knew what it was and what it was not. It was not “Seinfeld” or “Arrested Development,” continually pushing the boundaries of the form of the situation comedy. It was in many ways a pedestrian sitcom, but it knew its strength, and that strength was the group. “Friends” had an ensemble cast that interacted with one another brilliantly, playing clearly defined, infinitely likeable characters.
‘Friends’ was in many ways a pedestrian sitcom, but it knew its strength, and that strength was the group.
The mutual affection, respect and admiration that the six main actors had for one another was manifested not only in their onscreen chemistry, but also in their well-documented off-screen solidarity with one another. They engaged with network brass and the media as a unit, not as individual stars. The six actors seemingly did the unthinkable in Hollywood: They placed the common good of all above the desires of the individual.
“Friends: The Reunion” primarily features that iconic cast: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer gathered together on the show’s original set reminiscing about their shared experience on the hit series. “The Reunion” also contains a Q & A led by talk show host James Corden, along with a scattered collection of celebrity cameos and reminiscences of favorite moments by fans of the show from around the world.
Not surprisingly, the best parts of the reunion were the scenes where the six actors interact and engage with one another. They demonstrated once again the shared chemistry between them that was the heart of the show’s success. It was perhaps more touching than I would like to admit to watch as Matt LeBlanc helped Courteney Cox wipe tears away or as the entire cast waxed adoringly about Lisa Kudrow’s effusive laugh. These moments were much more moving than watching supermodel Cara Delevingne and Justin Bieber walk down a catwalk in Ross’s various Halloween costumes or David Beckham talk about what a “Monica” he is.
It was perhaps more touching than I would like to admit to watch as Matt LeBlanc helped Courteney Cox wipe tears away.
At the same time, the moments between the actors allowed the characters of Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe—and all their youthful exuberance and beauty—to remain very much in 2004. In some respects, “Friends” was never a mirror of real life. It never pretended to be. It was not real New York; it was not how people in their 20s really lived. And let’s face it, there would never be a self-respecting coffee shop in New York City that called itself “Central Perk.”
With its bright, colorful, relentlessly optimistic sets matching its sunny, upbeat theme song, it was the thinking person’s escapist fare, or at least it was this self-described thinking person’s escapist fare. “Friends” was well-written and well-acted enough that you did not need to be embarrassed to admit you watched it unironically, unlike ABC’s “T.G.I.F.” lineup. You remember those: “Full House,” “Family Matters,” “Step by Step”—those sentimentally manipulative sitcoms aimed less at belly laughs and more at tugging at the heartstrings. Although, in retrospect, “Friends” probably had a lot more in common with those shows than anyone at the time would have liked to admit.
‘Friends’ was well-written and well-acted enough that you did not need to be embarrassed to admit you watched it unironically.
“Friends: The Reunion” features fan testimonials from places such as India and Ghana and includes international celebrities such as the Korean boy band, BTS, and the Pakistani Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. The more cynically minded might attribute these appearances as responses to historical and contemporary criticisms of the show’s white homogeneity. That was not an unjust critique; and to be honest, the reunion episode has a far more diverse look than any episode of the actual show ever had.
But again, the show was never about realism, social or otherwise. It was almost always about fantasy. And perhaps that is why the reunion show works. “The Reunion” is in some ways an exposure of all the show’s seams, an opportunity to see “behind the curtain,” as it were. In the opening moments of the show we see the iconic apartment and coffee house for what they really are—plywood flats covered in paint on a soundstage in Burbank, Calif. We see the cast itself as it really is now: a collection of middle-aged actors fighting the very human fight against time, with varying results.
“The Reunion’’ shows “Friends” for the fantasy that it always was, while at the same time showing what sustained and continues to sustain that fantasy: the shared affection, admiration and respect of six very talented actors.
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