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The Friends Reunion: What Worked & What Missed the Mark
The highly-anticipated Friends reunion, a.k.a. “The One Where They Get Back Together”, premiered on HBO Max on May 27. Speaking of 27, it’s been that many years since the show aired back in 1994. (Sorry.) Read our breakdown below to find out what worked and what made us feel like we’d just eaten some of Rachel’s Thanksgiving trifle.
I’m old enough to have been compressed daily by the world of Friends in its original run. It was originally broadcast past my bedtime, (thanks, overly strict parents!) and I still remember the day my older brother burst into my room to tell me about this show about a guy who drinks coffee, has a pet monkey, and has it bad for this pretty woman who has a cool haircut.
Immediately afterward, said brother tirelessly mocked me for listening to kd lang while in bed, but all I could think of was this new show with hip people in a place I’d never been, both geographically and personally. I decided soon after that I had to start drinking coffee.
Every day at school that year, the girls in my class would giggle while deciding which of the characters on the show each of us boys was like, which likely happened to young Gen X’ers at their offices and/or colleges as well. When someone tells you that young people today are vapid in their approach to media consumption, please pause and consider the youth of my generation. I mean, our principal had to announce on the PA system that OJ was found innocent. Our class erupted into a chorus of “The Juice is loose!” Perhaps watching YouTubers eat noodles as a main source of entertainment might actually be a sign of emotional evolution.
But what of today’s view of Friends? How has it aged? In Seth Green’s clever, yet frat boy, nostalgia-porn series, Robot Chicken, the spoof of Peanuts involves one of Charles Schultz’ characters saying that it’s about “strong Christian overtones”, and any time I think of Friends today, I generally feel that if I knew these six main characters in this decade, I’d consider them the most boring six people on the planet, overly influenced by hyper-American, Judeo-Christian morals.
Of course, the series didn’t start that way. Originally it was about five of the most boring people on the planet, and one genius who was seen as a “weirdo”, who always ended up being happier and more thoughtful towards her relationships with people and the planet in general. (About a season and a half in, that character begins to be written as a frustrated shrew, unfortunately.) A spoiled rich girl with flawless hair and perfect figure would likely not find much sympathy in 2021. Neither would a know-it-all who barely hides his adopted homophobia after his wife discovers her sexual identity. Add in: a classic Karen, an overly smug “well actually”-type, and a himbo, and make sure they’re the whitest people in New York, living a life of outlandish privilege (at the very least in their housing situations) and the show should have aged poorly.
Yet, young people seem to adore Friends. One would fully expect it to be called some slang pejorative impetuously invented by Gen Z, (and then have that word used by aged outlet writers in pieces like “I’m _____ and I’m Okay With It!” as if that’s not completely proving Z’s point) or at the very least, be reviewed by young people with some viral Tweet like “I bet none of the characters on Friends ever ate a**”. Somehow, this hasn’t happened. Now, across age groups, the show has become more beloved than ever, as it was announced in the reunion broadcast that it has been watched (however that metric works) over one hundred billion times.
The reunion show brought out the quantity of opinions and memes that the studio doubtlessly predicted (and likely measures success with). The Seinfeld army came out to proclaim how much better their “reunion” was (the season of Curb Your Enthusiasm that was written about fictional new material). Of course, comparing Seinfeld to Friends is like comparing cheese to chalk, with one just slightly less white than the other. (Furthermore, How I Met Your Mother is the more apt comparison, if we’re going to take up that debate.) The “daddy” meme-ing of Matt Leblanc gave us Twitter threads that you might expect, and think pieces (hey, like this one you’re reading!) abound.
So what did the reunion show offer us? It didn’t have any reconciliation to address like the Fresh Prince reunion from earlier this year had with Will Smith and Janet Hubert. It wasn’t going to be meta like the aforementioned Seinfeld/Curb season, or the 30 Rock episode about reuniting the cast of Night Court. The producers went for every possible approach to a reunion that leaves the fans content and unprovoked, much like the run of the entire Friends series. And like the series, it had its warm moments and its disappointments. Rather than claiming broadly that the program was hit-and-miss, let’s see what worked and what didn’t.
Credit: Courteney Cox/ Instagram
The Cast is Still Loveable
Whether it’s Matt Leblanc giggling about “playing with bones” as if he’s still that gorgeous twenty-something but in a charming uncle’s body, or David Schwimmer being completely candid about “Marcel” — his character’s pet monkey — being a disgusting acting partner, it’s hard not to like these people. The cast, especially Jennifer Aniston, were subject to tabloid culture more than anyone in the 1990s, and even with their respective empires and success, one couldn’t blame them for being warped to Vincent Gallo-levels by this point. It felt good to see their personalities on the screen.
The Character Cameos
Larry Hankin is a delight, and it turns out he’s still alive, unlike his early season neighbor character. Seeing him get a nod brought some depth to the reunion. Same goes for Thomas Lennon, even though his cameo was shorter than his one in The Dark Knight Rises. Even the boring platitudes of Zoom caller James Michael Tyler (aka “Gunther”) were soothed by his trademark baritone. Throw in a smiling Tom Selleck and you’ve got some cute moments enjoyed by the die-hard fans and the casual ones alike.
Behind the Scenes
Clips shown of different takes from poignant moments in the series were placed perfectly, with added success coming from how much the main cast remembered those screw-ups. Considering how little they seemed to remember about the actual episodes and plot points, it feels good to realize that it’s often the little mistakes we remember most fondly in life.
What Didn’t Work
Lisa Kudrow and Lady Gaga. Credit: HBO Max
If you ask Reddit, and of course I mean /r/askreddit, James Corden’s phoniness and cruelty are only masked by Ellen’s existing persona, which is like when Canadians compare their social problems to America’s: Sure, we’re not psychotic monsters, but we’re still a mess with a lot of work needed. Corden did a poor impression of the late James Lipton and really didn’t need to be there at all. He didn’t do himself any favors to thwart the growing opinions of his callousness and the sharing of stories online of how dreadful he can be IRL. He was a shoehorned celebrity in a program that was as unrelated to him as possible. With that in mind…
When Lady Gaga arrived on the Central Perk set to out-sing Lisa Kudrow’s soft, slightly nervous, and completely endearing version of her character’s song “Smelly Cat” it felt like the moment on Ricky Gervais’ series Extras when the network forced him to put Chris Martin into his show, except this situation was completely in earnest. Both Kudrow and LG seemed uncomfortable with the entire performance while having it also stop the show dead for a minute. Also, didn’t Kudrow’s character already suffer this one-upmanship when Chrissy Hynde did the same thing to her? Oh, look. A black gospel choir has joined them. Why? Well, the show has faced one albatross of criticism over the years…
Addressing But Also Not Addressing the Whiteness
The closest Friends ever really comes to getting out of their safe, white universe is when three of the characters go see Hootie and the Blowfish, and that’s the least amount of non-white you can really do in the nineties. So, the producers of this show decided to have some talking head proclamations of love for the series from (extreme Daft Punk voice) around the world, and with a double (triple, if you count the twins as two!) helping from Ghana. It felt pandering bordering on insulting. It could have come right out of the early 2000s satire site, blackpeopleloveus.com (Hey look! It’s a young Chelsea Peretti!). At one point, it would have not felt surprising to read a title card of “Check out these testimonials from our real-life friends!” The douche chills were real.
Hollywood is not out of ideas, despite the lazy proclamations against the Marvel empire and the reboot tsunamis of the past decade or so. The big-budget movie industry has, in fact, mostly reverted to the days before the honeymoon of indie cinema of the nineties and aughts. Movies are again made to get a person out of their house (soon) and partake in an event. The public needs to see something they recognize for that to happen. Don’t forget that television is also made by the same people, and what once would have been a film is now often a groundbreaking series on a streaming service or cable. And as much as we’d like to think that the Friends reunion on HBO is part of a series, it’s actually an event, a brand recognizable not just to those who were there when it was the biggest thing since Hulk Hogan. It has also found new life in the curious minds of younger generations who want to relate to their parents, before the information age and on-demand culture took hold. So, of course, after an immense call for it, we were given the reunion we wanted, and it stuck in the zeitgeist for as long as anything does these days, which is about four days.
Friends, if judged today, would be the type of saccharine network nonsense that our current, darker comedies would ridicule, if not completely parody. However warm it might feel, it has become like the Beatles of American television; it feels like the references and jokes have lived in our bloodstream forever, or as John Hannah says of the Beatles catalog in Sliding Doors: “Everybody’s born knowing all the Beatles lyrics instinctively. They’re passed into the fetus subconsciously along with all the amniotic stuff.” However, there is still coziness there to be had by anyone who was called a Chandler by their classmates at a school dance, or likes to get stoned and throw Cheerios around as Jon Lovitz did in Monica’s apartment. Luckily, though, we have the power of another group of legendary friends from the nineties, Beavis and Butthead, and we, more than ever, can say “This sucks, change it.”