Light moments are few and far between in The Handmaid’s Tale, which has continued its tradition of brutal brilliance in season 2. So imagine our surprise (and relief!) when three Friend-ly faces — Monica, Chandler, and Rachel — showed up in the second episode. (Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Unwomen,” which premiered on April 25.)
On the run and in hiding at the abandoned headquarters of The Boston Globe — June (Elisabeth Moss) has plenty of free time on her hands while she waits for the resistance group Mayday to get in contact. While exploring the newsroom, she finds a lot of Red Sox memorabilia — this is (or was) Boston, after all — as well as a DVD of Friends season 4. Later on in the episode, we find June in a brief moment of repose, watching “The One With Phoebe’s Uterus” (season 4, episode 11) — specifically, the scene where Monica and Rachel educate Chandler on a woman’s many erogenous zones.
So how did half of TV’s most lovable sextet end up in the grim world of Gilead? The Handmaid’s Tale executive producer Warren Littlefield says the writers hit upon the idea last summer when they were hashing out June’s story in “Unwomen,” which features her grim discovery of a massacre at the Globe‘s offices. “We knew how dramatic and powerful and important that story was, to show how horribly the press could be treated in the fascist world of Gilead,” says Littlefield. “But June’s also going to be exploring people’s desks and all that stuff, so we said, ‘How do we lighten it up a little bit?’ It may have been me, I think I said, ‘I don’t know, a DVD of Friends?'” Handmaid’s showrunner and fellow exec producer Bruce Miller liked the idea, and the writers’ room discussion quickly turned to which Friends episode they should use. “I believe there was a rapid-fire bounding around the room of memorable [Friends] moments, and what was the perfect juxtaposition to being in the world of Gilead,” says Littlefield. “And [‘The One With Phoebe’s Uterus’] is what stuck for Bruce, and that was in the script. Then we had to acquire it.”
The Handmaid’s team needed to request permission from Warner Bros. — the studio that produced Friends — to use the clip in the episode, but it wasn’t long before Ashley Kravitz, who handles clearances for the Hulu series, ran into a bit of a roadblock. “Uniquely, the actors [on Friends] have control over every clip that’s licensed on Friends,” explains Littlefield. “So Ashley went, ‘Oh, well this is interesting. What should we do?'” Now might be a good time to mention that before he became a producer, Littlefield served as president of NBC Entertainment from 1990-1999, and he helped develop many of the network’s Must-See TV hits… including Friends. “I said, ‘I’ll just call their reps,'” he recalls. “So I picked up the phone, and I called the reps for Jennifer [Aniston] and Courteney [Cox] and Matthew [Perry], and I said, ‘Hey, I’d like to use this clip from Friends in The Handmaid’s Tale.’ And I said, ‘Send my love.'”
Needless to say, the actors and Warner Bros. granted permission, and after paying a standard clip license fee, Handmaid’s was free to bring June a little happiness via the gang at Central Perk. “June is sitting with her back against the wall, and she’s watching the episode, and there’s a smile that comes to her face. I think we all get that feeling,” says Littlefield. “It’s Friends. Who doesn’t love Friends?”
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.