Friends: The Reunion
Director: Ben Winston
Nostalgia has always been the best marketing hook. Pop songs from the sixties singing about the “reflections of the way life used to be”. Pop songs from every decade since doing much the same.
Why not remind people of the past though, you can sell them the same memories all over again – we’ve never been less sure of the future and the present sure is tense.
Friends was a show that was appointment viewing back in the days of terrestrial TV. We were enrolled in university. Some of us even attended. And on Wednesday nights we’d get together with a six-pack or three and laugh at the people that looked like us, prettier versions albeit. (Sure, some of us were just waiting for Seinfeld, which for a time was scheduled right after, but we still watched Friends).
The reunion is billed, and plays out, like it’s something special. But it’s just business once again. The six “Friends” have barely been in a room together since the show wrapped, bringing them all back home again is apparently a masterstroke. But actually it’s so HBO Max can generate some interest in streaming the ten seasons on their platform. The same ten seasons the rabid fans still own on DVD and have been re-watching for the last half-decade on Netflix – and catching up on bit by bit in the forever re-run loops on what’s left of network television.
All it took was a couple of million dollars per star for the reunion. A pay-cut for Jennifer Aniston. Enough to get Matthew Perry back on the slippery slope.
I am in no way making light of addiction here. Quite the opposite. I’m questioning the responsibility of the show’s producers in wheeling out a transmogrified Chandler. There he was hiding inside a trench coat, all weird angles and with a mouth pursed oddly around a new set of teeth. The dull mugs of Twitter threw their anger-led energy into mean tweets – with the hope, no doubt, they’d be read out on some late-night show but it all just feeds an ugly machine.
Some late-night show’s host was the celeb interviewer – in the most disappointing and least revealing aspect of the reunion. James Corden took time out from doing a voice in every animated film ever and running the same carpool karaoke skit to ask the Friends if they were, well, still friends. That was about as deep as he got.
Perry winced. And he wasn’t even being addressed. He sat there looking like he had been cursed to hold in a fart forever but could already smell what would eventually come out.
How this is looking after a fragile human being is beyond me. And yes, he’s a fragile human with a lot more money and privilege than many. But he was also put in the firing line and paid handsomely to reflect on how he doesn’t look like he used to. Reflecting on the way life used to be…
Friends has not aged well. Beyond nostalgia. Amber hues and rose tints allow people to bask in the memory of a safe, mainstream one-liner that raised a slight chuckle, and the time they sat on their couch with their friends watching the Friends sitting on their couch. But this show mocked eating disorders, was blatantly homophobic and no one ever understood how most of them went long periods without work or just held down fairly joe-jobs, but lived in a nice apartment, conveniently located right in the city. That’s white privilege eh.
The show was very white. And rather than address that – the reunion’s producers “cleverly” paraded around a few people of colour to appear as talking heads, gushing about the influence of the show. They were made to feel good about themselves by watching some pretty, white people tell overly scripted jokes. It made them feel better you see.
There we had Nobel Prize laureate and peace activist Malala Yousafzai talking about how Friends was just the best. Um.
The only thing whiter than Friends is the new set of veneers Mathew Perry was slurring in and round as a result of the pressure he felt to get “emergency dental work” as he dared back into the headlights again. Perry was, weirdly, very nearly a leading man in the late 90s. The films flopped. They couldn’t find a suitable vehicle for him and he crashed.
James Corden is never going to ask Perry what it’s like to be out there again, frightened, visibly different and struggling. Instead we just get platitudes. Zoomed in appearances from supporting players (Gunther) and a walk-on from Janice – a life-support system for an annoying laugh.
Matt LeBlanc has aged correctly. A comfortable spread – he works a lot in the UK, and has grey hair and a tummy, like a lot of people in the UK (or, ah, anywhere). David Schwimmer returned to theatre, mostly, after his big TV payday. He’s directed a couple of startling, brilliant movies. But most people just hang on the idea that Ross was a dick. Lisa Kudrow seems nice. She, too, has aged appropriately. Naturally. Courtney Cox sat with a clown-mask welded on to her face (to paraphrase the late, great Greg Giraldo) and, well, we wall know enough about Jennifer Aniston whether we wanted to or not.
The Friends Reunion doesn’t really give you much more.
It might be sweet to see them tell each other there’s a bond and to almost mean it. But I watched it all with the crushing awareness that I was lazy and white enough to sit on the couch, once again, and choose this over anything else. If you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem.
The problem with this is that the cast seemed sad and far less interested in the show than its stalker/ish fans. That’s a big imbalance. But a big payday can allow people trained to fake emotions to, erm, fake emotions.
Much like the series finale, I watched the Friends Reunion so that I don’t have to. Ever again.
The best bit, sincerely, was hearing from one of the show’s creators, that glorious tagline once again. It is perhaps the best elevator pitch ever: “It is a show about that time in your life when your friends are your family”. I watched that show at a time in my life when my friends were my family. You did too. If you ever watched it. It worked on us. Like a magic trick. That pitch, I mean. It is a triumph of marketing. As heady as any nostalgia rush. It feels more important than it is. And at the same time, it is actually important too.
But 17 years on, and at least 20 years since I last cared about the show in any fleeting way, I was struck by the irony that in the reunion – The One Where A Casual Pull At Heart-Strings Sorta Runs Out of Gas – Friends finally caught up with the tale of Seinfeld it was always chasing. This, ultimately, was a show about nothing.
You can watch Friends The Reunion on TVNZ on Demand