Friends reunion review: HBO Max delivers the transponster of reunions
The long-delayed Friends reunion gets off to a lovely start. One by one, the six stars — who, we're told, have only been all together once since the NBC sitcom went off the air in 2004 — stroll into Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, CA., where the Friends sets have all been meticulously recreated. "Wow," murmurs David Schwimmer, strolling past Joey and Chandler's apartment, the drab but pivotal hallway, Monica and Rachel's palatial two-bedroom, and finally, the shabby chic hangout known as Central Perk. "This is beautiful." Next comes Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox, and finally Matthew Perry. Hugs and tears ensue. "It's amazing," whispers Aniston, her voice cracking. "All right, but where's the tissue box?" Finding none, she grabs a napkin from Monica's kitchen table.
It's a moment of genuine emotion, both for the cast and viewers — many of whom, like myself, have watched and rewatched the show time and again over the last 17 years. The opening also exemplifies what works about HBO Max's Friends: The Reunion: The real-life pals hanging out, reminiscing about their run as the most famous TV friends on the planet. Unfortunately, the bloated, 104-minute (!) special sandwiches these flashes of reunion magic between a lot of silly, tiresome filler.
First announced in February of 2020, Friends: The Reunion was initially conceived as an incentive to drive subscriptions to WarnerMedia's upcoming streaming service. Then, of course, came the pandemic. HBO Max launched in May, while the Friends special was delayed multiple times, understandably, for safety reasons. The stars were finally able to assemble for the shoot, featuring an interview by James Corden in front of a live audience, last month. Once combined with a variety of pre-taped segments, the resulting special (premiering May 27) is a bit of a mishmash: Part talk show, part testimonial, part clip-fueled retrospective, and part family reunion.
The cast — each of whom received a reported $2.25 to $2.5 million appearance fee from WarnerMedia — are certainly game. They give lively table-read performances of scenes from classic episodes (and yes, they've still got it). They engage in a spirited Friends trivia quiz modeled after the apartment-swap bet in "The One With the Embryos," complete with walk-on celebrity cameos. And the stars laugh until they cry while watching bloopers on Monica and Rachel's ancient-looking TV. Director Ben Winston (The Late Late Show With James Corden) cleverly intersperses the cast's recollections with behind-the-scenes footage; one of the most entertaining moments is watching the Friends watch LeBlanc dislocate his shoulder while shooting "The One Where No One's Ready." ("No! No! No!" squeals Kudrow, while a squeamish Aniston buries her face in one of Monica's throw pillows.)
Whenever the action moves away from Stage 24, things start to fall apart. The celebrity testimonials add little, except to the reunion's runtime. (In case you were wondering, David Beckham is a Monica.) Corden's interview is banal, though he manages to unearth one (obviously thoroughly vetted in advance) revelation about two of the stars. Surprise guests are treated to awkward, hello-goodbye appearances which are made all the more uncomfortable by Corden's over-animated cheerleading. ("What about that! What a treat!") There is also a very unnecessary fashion show of "iconic costumes."
At one point, the cast watches a pre-taped segment featuring fans around the globe rhapsodizing about Friends. Nancy from Ghana says the comedy saved her from a deep depression. Nobel Prize winning activist Malala Yousafzai reveals that her favorite episode is "The One With the Routine." But rather than allowing Corden to ask the cast for their reactions to those or any of the other testimonials they just watched, the show moves right to an audience Q&A…which leads to yet another story about how much David Schwimmer hated Marcel the monkey. (Breaking news: EW first reported this fact in 1995.) No doubt Corden was hamstrung in his interview by pre-existing terms and conditions, but sheesh, for $2 million-plus apiece, surely the cast could have handled a little spontaneity.
So what's a Friends fan to do? For those with HBO Max already, fire it up, fast-forward past anything that isn't the six cast members talking to each other, and enjoy. For those who aren't subscribers, just wait for the best bits to surface online, as these things always do. That may not be WarnerMedia's preferred path of action, but what they don't know (that we know they know we know) won't hurt them. Grade: B