I was not a big fan of Friends. The NBC sitcom ran 10 seasons and 234 episodes from 1994 through 2004. I maybe saw 10 of them, six all the way through.
It just wasn’t my jam. I liked the theme song by The Rembrandts, and how they would switch up the visuals in the intro from season to season, but I did not have the connection with these six that viewers who were closer to their ages did. They just weren’t my friends.
I knew and understood, however, their enormous appeal to others. I interviewed all six stars at one time or another and they were always friendly and professional. I remember Matthew Perry coming to Global to be interviewed by Entertainment Desk host Bob McAdorey just days before the series premiered. Mac – always extremely generous to me when I would guest on Fridays while at TV Guide – asked me to sit in and share the questions. Perry, who had been a ranked tennis player as a teen and, like the others, had bounced around other sitcoms and pilots, was pretty collected for a 24-year-old who already knew his life was going to be turned completely inside out.
Friends: The Reunion, streaming now at HBO Max and in Canada at Crave, is a two-hour homage to a monster TV hit I was not that familiar with. I’d never seen Lisa Kudrow, as Phoebe, for example, sing “Smelly Cat,” or witness Chandler, Joey and Rachel struggle to bring a couch up a flight of stairs.
Yet I enjoyed the reunion special much more than I thought I would. I was, after all, a big fan of LeBlanc’s more recent series Episodes. I’ve seen every episode of Episodes. LeBlanc gets funnier with age and steals many moments of this reunion special.
If you were a big fan of the original series, however, these two hours won’t seem long enough. If you weren’t a big fan, you may, like me, just enjoy seeing this generous, behind-the-scenes, fully documented peek at how a hit series comes together – from the casting to the sets to how it was experienced by a studio audience.
The special begins with David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry walking, individually, back into Studio 24 on the Warner Brothers Studio lot in Burbank, Calif. There they encounter the old sets from the series, the familiar and cluttered apartment interiors reassembled all in a row – just the way it was when they series wrapped for the last time in 2004.
I was there for the final, on-set, press conference, along with 200 or so other TV beat writers and critics. We sat in the bleachers when the studio audiences always sat, with the actors on director’s chairs on the floor of the soundstage. All six politely answered questions and then were escorted out; no mingling.
The reunion special steps outside to take viewers to the exterior “fountain” set, where James Corden is waiting with an audience of fans assembled for the occasion. Corden seems an apt choice now that I’ve seen the special. He doesn’t dominate, not in the way Oprah or Ellen might have. He makes a few intros, turns off the fountain and lets the cast and the fans have their moments.
Creators and executive producers Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane are also there. Crane explains that the series was somewhat based on his experiences with college friend Kauffman and how they wanted the series to be “all about that time in your life when your friends are your family.”
There is no sense spoiling everything that happens in the special. There are testimonials from famous fans who guested on the series such as Reece Witherspoon, Mindy Kalling and Tom Selleck. We learn how each of the actors were cast; Schwimmer, surprisingly to me, was first with the Rachel character presenting the biggest challenge. The big lesson of Friends was the casting. It meant everything to the success of the show.
We see how the series blew up. Within a year it was on every magazine cover. It went global and was translated into 18 languages.
In Canada it also went Global, anchoring a dominant run at the network that also has Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Frasier and other comedy hits of the era.
Plenty of outtakes are shared, including one sequence where a cast member gets injured, altering a few subsequent episodes.
Some of the best moments in the special come when the cast sit down to do a few table reads. It’s fun to watch them throw themselves back into these characters and just enjoy each other’s company.
There’s a fashion show (featuring a famous Canadian), and a triva contest. Two of the actors confess they were crushing on each other in real life.
Not dealt with, at all, is the show’s lack of diversity. Kudrow, in fact, is singled out for being “different,” which, I guess, was because her character was artier than the others. The series, however, looks more white-ish with every passing year.
The ending, which was watched by 52 million viewers, is discussed. The goal, say the producers, was to leave everybody in a good place. Ross and Rachel getting together at the end was debated but, as Crane says, viewers waited 10 years for that to happen and would not be denied.
There are scenes of how the set was dismantled right away to make room for the next series on that soundstage. Would the cast ever get back together for a new season or a movie? The correct answer is given.
Some early reviews have drawn attention to Perry seeming sad or down. That’s not what I saw. He’s emotional at times, but no more than the others who are sharing so many feelings from what amounts, really, to sitting back inside your childhood home.
Back in the day, Perry was perhaps the most gifted at delivering a wisecrack. He had Michael J. Fox TV timing. Yes he’s older but aren’t we all?
He will be fine. Yes, no one told him life was going to be this way – but, on balance, it has been pretty good life so far.