Longer than most movies on HBO Max, “Friends: The Reunion” lands on the streaming service tomorrow after years of fans clamoring to catch up with some of the most beloved TV characters in the history of the form. In a somewhat interesting decision, the special doesn’t really catch up as much as re-live. The 104-minute special has a lot of “The Chris Farley Show” energy—“Remember when that happened? That was great.”—but fans of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe are unlikely to care. It’s an event that’s most interesting when it’s the least forced, when these six actors who really grew up together in the public eye are allowed to wander the rebuilt sets of their apartments, asking each other what they remember from that formative chapter in their lives. Less effective are the superficial questions from host James Corden, or bits in which the cast table read memorable scenes from the history of the series (although, man, Kudrow still gives it her all.)
“Friends: The Reunion” opens with its best sequence, in which Lisa Kudrow, Matt Leblanc, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, and Matthew Perry hang out on the meticulously rebuilt sets from the original series. These scenes have the energy of an actual high school reunion—seeing people that you once loved for the first time in years. As someone old enough to have gone to a landmark college reunion not that long ago, there’s a fascinating energy to these events, particularly in how just being in the presence of someone that you haven’t seen in a decade can allow memories to flood back. You can see that on the warm, friendly faces of these six people. Every time the special cuts back to the apartment, it’s at its strongest.
Less interesting is a talk-show segment in front of a socially-distanced audience by the legendary fountain from the show’s opening credits. Corden asks the questions and leads into bits, including table reads of beloved scripts that fans know by heart. I’m not sure what’s gained by seeing the actors read some of the best work again now, but maybe that’s just a me thing. Sound bites from guest stars like Reese Witherspoon and hardcore fans like Kit Harrington also have less impact than the making-of interview material with creators David Crane, Marta Kauffman, and Kevin S. Bright. While they’re not as interesting to some fans as Kudrow singing “Smelly Cat” again, I wanted more details about the production of the show and less reminiscing about stuff we’ve all seen. I also really wanted more about what the gang has been up to since then—how the show impacted their careers and lives is surprisingly not in much of this project, although perhaps those were tough waters to navigate for some cast members, and I get the production wanting to stay light and positive. Still, the impact of “Friends” is reflected more here in fans of the show—there’s a clever segment with them around the world—than what the show did to the people who it turned into household names.
To be fair, Corden does finally get to some interesting questions including asking about off-screen romances and the big one: Why not another episode or a movie? I won’t spoil the answers to either, but I did walk into the special questioning why they weren’t actually revisiting these characters and left satisfied that not everything needs an update. We’re in an era of reboots with canceled shows like “Mad About You,” “Roseanne,” and “Will & Grace” returning to the air, but there’s something nice about leaving the “Friends” gang where they were on that final day almost 20 years ago—going out for coffee, their whole future ahead of them.
Available on HBO Max on May 27.