There’s a point when Jennifer Aniston looks at the set she inhabited for 10 seasons and 236 episodes. LeBlanc on entering part of the stage says, “It all seems small to me, the whole stage”, to which Aniston replies “No, that’s impossible, though, because we haven’t grown”, she sighs. “Hey, speak for yourself”, replies LeBlanc. The delight of the comment is that it is uttered by the person who put on more pounds than any of them since 2004 when ‘Friends’ shot its final episode. But is this the actor speaking? Is it coming from the moth of LeBlanc or that of his loveable, kind-hearted spacer Joey? What is clear – in this special that brings together the six actors from the show in front of the cameras – is that LeBlanc is the one who is most comfortable with in his own current skin. It’s hard not to notice the aesthetic touch-ups Aniston and, above all, Courteney Cox have undergone, the result of pressure from the industry. Or the absent air of Matthew Perry (Chandler), who confesses crestfallen having suffered panic attacks during each and every one of the episodes, a fact that his casting partners admit to only discovering now.
And despite these awkward moments, the special of ‘Friends’ works. It is a hundred minutes to celebrate a series that, strangely, has withstood the passage of time enough to have a generation of post-adolescents continue revering it despite the fact that the product wouldn’t pass muster on the minimum diversity filters the industry requires of a modern-day series. Six white, cis, straight boys and girls… good luck to whoever tries flogging that project in 2021.
Perhaps in an effort to seek redemption for the lack of diversity, one of the sections of the special travels all over the world to interview fans of the show explaining why the series was so significant for them and here, the majority of whom are non-Caucasians. A gay couple and a lesbian couple also appear, validating the show. The series, in reality, was not more conservative than the rest of its companions on the programming schedule of the day, and it’s always dangerous to judge past works through contemporary goggles – and the values – of the present. And at times, all this justification only goes to provide greater evidence for what it’s trying to hide.
The best way to approach this reunion is simply to succumb. Yes, ‘Friends’ was conservative, white (in every way), and easy-going. But it was also a piece of physical and verbal comedy whose intentions were never meant to set the world to rights, but rather to offer audiences twenty-two-minute capsules to help them escape worldly tribulations, reaping the benefits of six generous actors. One of the most interesting fragments is when series creators explain the extremely lengthy casting process, but obviously well worth the efforts, because they managed to get the six stars to gel perfectly, and therein lies the key to the success of the series.
As such, fans are reunited with supporting actors, such as Günther and Janice, just check out the cameos – Tom Selleck, Julia Roberts! – and they even deliver a bizarre review of Smelly Cat, with Phoebe accompanied by Lady Gaga and a gospel choir. A few illustrious fans of the series appear to supply us with some interesting, some not so, anecdotes and David Schwimmer acts as master of ceremonies in a quiz show about the series that gives us an opportunity to relive some of the most celebrated gags from ‘Friends’.
And that’s when, of course, romance raises its sweet head. Between 1994 and 2004, the world of series fans were kept hanging on tender hooks around the unresolved sexual tension between Ross and Rachel. Consequently, the reunion gives rise to the obvious question all fans asked themselves at one point or another: Did all this flirting between ever come to anything… did Schwimmer and Aniston ever hook up? Again, the snippets encapsulating the greatest truth elevate it beyond the mere promotional function of a show whose rights still market in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
This special was to serve as a cover letter for the HBO Max service, which was launched last year in the United States and will soon be introduced globally. But COVID made that impossible. Still, the show retains the glaze of landmark television event. James Corden conducts the affairs with his hallmark solvency and the actors – who after all had only seen each other together once after the final of the series – comply fully with the format, thereby ensuring the proximity that gives meaning to the series title. ‘Friends’, according to the creators, it’s about when friends become family. And when everything’s said and done, with more or less Botox or wrinkles, these friends will always be welcomed home.