Full disclosure: I am not what you would call a "Friends" fan. I only watched the series finale during its original run so I have no nostalgia for the show, and coming to it fresh-eyed in recent years, time has not particularly done the outdated jokes and the old-school sitcom tropes many favors. While I can respect its place in the pop culture pantheon – and I cannot deny David Schwimmer does say "pivot" very funny and has made moving significantly more enjoyable as a result – "Friends" always struck me as the Applebee's of entertainment.
So imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually had an enjoyable time watching the much-anticipated (and much-delayed) HBO Max "Friends" reunion special. Or at least half of the reunion special. OK, maybe just a third of the reunion special. And maybe, after a year of a pandemic keeping people separated and distanced, I'm just emotionally primed to be enchanted by old friends bonding and reflecting on the good times. But that good 33 percent was awfully charming, friends heartwarmingly catching up with one another and sharing small memories from a larger-than-life moment in their careers.
Unfortunately, that's only a small part of the 104-minute special. Seemingly afraid that it will more than another 17 years before the stars will be in the same room together (at least with TV cameras also in attendance), "The One Where They Get Back Together" combines several different reunion elements in one special, from a candid meet-up back on the set to classic script readings to a live on-stage session with everyone's most over-enthusiastic fan James Corden. There are traditional behind-the-scenes talking head interviews with the creators – informative enough, but more like DVD extras than something special – and even a glorified recreation of the show's famed trivia contest episode, complete with the stars answering essentially "Friends" pub trivia. (Though most "Friends" pub trivia outings don't come complete with a guest visit from Tom Selleck.) The result was a strangely disjointed reunion with elements that didn't gel together at all, essentially Rachel's English trifle in television form.
The parts that worked, though, really worked – and those would obviously be the actual reunion segments, with no host or questions, just the six cast members wandering about the recreated famous sets, naturally reminiscing about their thoughts and memories of the show, free-wheeling with the relaxed chemistry of old friends picking up right where they left off and occasionally watching bloopers.
Nothing very probing, confrontational or in-depth made the cut. (Hell, the special wouldn't even allow some swear words; we're on HBO Max, not NBC!) But these segments easily provided the most interesting and amusing glimpses behind the show, from Matt LeBlanc's stories of erasing Courtney Cox's lines from the apartment table to the saga of LeBlanc popping his arm out of its socket during a goofy jump gone wrong (a medical mishap that had to be written into the show, turning one of the seemingly simplest episodes into one of its longest shoots) and Matthew Perry reflecting on the stress and intense mental pressure of trying to get the live audience to laugh. (The closest the special gets to addressing Perry's not-secret behind-the-scenes problems during the show which are also likely the reason why Perry, besides some Chandler-esque quips, seems to have the least to say of anyone.) They deliver on the special's promise: a warm-hearted self-guided tour of the show by those who knew it best, finally together again for our entertainment.
The live Q&A session offers its share of fond memories and tantalizing tidbits as well. The juicy tabloid fodder that Aniston and Schwimmer both had crushes on each other during the show that never actualized into reality but made their way on screen bubbles up, as well as Lisa Kudrow's pretty emphatic and perfectly reasoned dismissal of a scripted return. Somewhere, you can hear HBO Max execs sobbing and face-palming. Sorry, when it comes to true new "Friends" material, Kudrow having a hilariously Phoebe-esque battle with a rogue fly making its way on stage will have to suffice.
Unfortunately, the fly is one of the special's more welcome cameos. While some guests are smile-inducing – Selleck, the Gellar parents Elliot Gould and Christina Pickles, a resurrected Mr. Heckles – most of the celebrity appearances are useless filler. Corden has the most to do as the moderator for the live reunion sections, but considering the cast was doing just fine traveling down memory lane on their own, naturally bringing up memories and pondering the show's legacy, he becomes the Janice of the special: shrill and unwanted. At least Maggie Wheeler (who makes a cheerful appearance) is funny; Corden adds little here but decibels.
He's not the worst part of the Q&A session, though. That title belongs to the "fashion show" segment, featuring the likes of Cara Delevingne and Justin Bieber modeling some of the show's memorable costumes for the amusement of exclusively themselves. It feels less like a celebration of the show and more like some famous people wanted in on the action, five minutes that could've been better spent chatting with the six cast members we haven't seen together in almost two decades. Same goes for Lady Gaga busting into Kudrow's encore performance of "Smelly Cat," what's supposed to be appreciation that instead overtakes the spotlight.
The most egregious running time stuffing in the reunion special, however, comes with the talking head interviews with famous faces. Kit Harrington, Malala, David Beckham and BTS all show up for precorded chats to solely tell the audience that they, too, are "Friends" fans. The producers might as well have added a scrolling message at the bottom of the screen saying, "If you need to go the bathroom, now's the time."
Only Reese Witherspoon's interlude has any logical reason to be here since she was actually a guest star on the show, but even then, you probably used that segment to check social media and sports scores before coming back to attention when the cast popped back up. A few people from across the globe pop up as well, and while their stories of fandom are pleasant and heartening enough, we've had decades of "Friends" fandom and 20 million BuzzFeed articles to reiterate the point that "Friends" was popular and loved; we've only had until now to hang out once again with the stars themselves together.
But even though the show involves more misguided padding than the "Fat Monica" subplot and the actual reunion portions feel sparse in the overall running time, those moments linger far longer than the annoyances.
Watching David Schwimmer arrive first on set (because of course Schwimmer arrived first) and linger around the set, befuddled like all of us at the passage of time and wide-eyed absorbing the monolithic yet mundane sets around him, eagerly greeting his old colleagues, refreshing themselves on moments (and even just wooden beams) forgotten and enjoying one more lazy crumble into the recliners, it's hard not to be swept up in the sincere enthusiasm and sweet nostalgic embrace of it all.
And that's for someone at best apathetic with the show. For "Friends" fans, while it's far from the final word on the show (I doubt it's even the final reunion special for the show), this long-awaited reunion will probably make their day, their week, their month and even their year.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.