All good things are doomed to come to an end, and it is exactly at this end where Ben Winston’s “Friends: The Reunion” picks up. The special, filmed in April and made available to stream on HBO Max on May 27, opens with a scene from the “Friends” series finale. All over again, fans watch their favorite characters say goodbye to their New York City apartment and head off into their new lives.
As the scene fades, the camera pans to reveal an older David Schwimmer, who played the nerdy hopeless romantic, Ross Gellar, on the sitcom. As he enters the studio again for the first time in 17 years, the look on his face says it all. Thousands of memories from filming the sitcom that was beloved by millions are rushing back to him.
Schwimmer’s entrance is followed by Lisa Kudrow’s, who played the quirky-yet-loveable Phoebe Buffay. Then comes a tearful Jennifer Aniston, who portrayed the spoiled but determined-to-change Rachel Green.
After a bit, heartthrob character Joey Tribbiani makes his return in the form of a larger, greyer and gruffer version of actor Matt LeBlanc. Then follows the one and only Courteney Cox, who portrayed the uptight Monica Gellar. When the sarcastic boy-next-door Chandler Bing, aka Matthew Perry, reenters the studio, the gang is at long-last reunited.
“Friends: The Reunion” is filled with tears, heartfelt fan interviews, celebrity guests and the re-creation of iconic moments from the series. Every minute of the hour and 45-minute special is worth it. It gives fans everything they could possibly hope for, alternating between different segments to showcase a variety of behind-the-scenes moments, extras and exclusives. The reunion allows fans to see their treasured characters all together again — not only in the roles they know and love but as the actors themselves. “Friends: The Reunion” gives fans a glimpse into who the characters were outside of the show, as well as who they have grown to be today.
The cast members are not the only ones reunited on “Friends: The Reunion.” The special also features insight from the show’s executive producers: David Crane, Marta Kauffman and Kevin S. Bright. Kauffman and Crane shared where their idea for the show originated from — their own experiences as 20-somethings living in New York City. Like all good writers of fiction, they drew on reality. It was their real-life friend group that inspired them to create a sitcom about a friend group. Specifically, “the time in your life where your friends are your family.”
As genius, simple and ripe with comedy the concept for the show proved to be, the writers cannot get all the credit for the success of “Friends.” Without the actors’ abilities to bring life to the words on the page, the characters would not have been the same. While the writers developed the characters extremely well, the actors gave them the personalities that made them so nuanced and funny.
The cast’s chemistry made their performance as friends believable. Anyone watching the sitcom could feel like the characters were their friends too, which helps “Friends” remain so beloved to this day. However, the cast’s chemistry was also formed by the show’s unexpected success. As Schwimmer reflected, “No one was going through what we were going through except the other five.”
As early as the show’s second season, the actors experienced what Aniston called the “jarring” experience of being recognized everywhere they went. LeBlanc shared an anecdote about watching the news one day at the height of the show’s popularity and suddenly seeing a live aerial shot of his own roof. He recalls that his immediate reaction was appalled by how dirty his roof was. Though he made a joke of the experience — as well as how absurd it was that fame led to the realization that he needed to clean his roof — this instance points to the larger struggle of being quickly catapulted into global fame. There was no room to appear as anything less than perfect when they were constantly being observed.
This applied during filming for the show too: The actors were put under the microscope every time they filmed an episode of “Friends.” “Friends: The Reunion” exposes the reality of being a sitcom star that often gets overlooked. It is easy to pretend the characters live in their own reality when watching through the eye of the TV screen. However, the actors were performing for a live studio audience. While being their respective characters seemed effortless, their performances were actually propelled by anxiety. The pressure was on to land every joke and always perform at the height of their abilities. For the actors of “Friends,” being in this live spotlight for 10 years took a toll on their egos.
Courtney Cox reflected on the live audience’s effect on her as Monica: “When they would laugh at something, I would think to myself, ‘wait till you get a load of this next line…’ I would feel this rewarding feeling…or not…or flat nothing.” This sentiment perfectly encompasses the two extremes of being in front of an audience for the cast: It was either an ego-crush or inspiration to work harder. For most artists, it is impossible to see an “in-between” when their art is shared with others — the reaction either feels entirely positive or entirely negative. It is difficult to not take what others say personally, especially when so much of oneself has been put into the art.
Following Cox’s statement is a heart-breaking revelation by Matthew Perry. While Chandler Bing may have been shooting off endless sarcastic one-liners, the actor himself crumbled under the expectations of the live audience: “To me, I felt like I was going to die if they didn’t laugh… I would sweat and just like go into convulsions if I didn’t get the laugh I was supposed to get.” Lisa Kudrow seemed surprised to hear this, saying, “You didn’t tell us that then.” This proves that not even Perry’s costars could have possibly known the struggles behind his fan-favorite character.
Perry also struggled with alcoholism and a Vicodin addiction during his time on “Friends.” Though “Friends: The Reunion” does not delve into these darker truths, Perry has revealed in a previous interview with BBC Radio 2 that he has no recollection of filming three whole seasons of “Friends.” Filming “Friends” while tired, hungover and anxious over every joke made playing Chandler Bing no easy task for Matthew Perry.
However toxic the live studio environment may have been for the actors, the writers revealed in the special that most of their guidance as to what was working in the show came from the live reaction. Monica and Chandler becoming a couple was only continued as a plotline due to the over-the-top applause they received while filming the reveal that the two had hooked up. Having the audience on set also allowed the writers to pitch new jokes on the spot and find the best possible lines to keep in the show.
In reality, despite the darker truths the cast revealed about their time on “Friends,” the special ended with the cast expressing their gratitude for the show’s success and their contentment with how the show ended. Lisa Kudrow said that she does not wish to ever reboot the sitcom in any fashion because she does not want to “see anyone’s happy ending unraveled” to create new stories. “Friends: The Reunion” for them was the necessary catharsis. To be in their environment one last time was the final moment of closure they needed. As Kaufman put it, “If the show was about, ‘that time in your life where your friends are your family,’ once you have family of your own, it’s no longer that time.” This sentiment could not be truer for fans and actors alike. Life is ultimately about moving on.
The six actors end the special as they begin it, as friends who truly will be there for each other through it all. “Friends: The Reunion” ends with the actors in one last private huddle. The theme song playing behind them for a final time. Audience, fans and actors find themselves again where they began— at another dreaded end.