When details of the Friends reunion special came out a couple of weeks ago, they seemed to promise a car crash. In addition to interviews with the central cast of the world’s most popular television programme, the long-awaited return of Friends would also treat us to a large number of celebrity guest appearances. And they were an eclectic bunch. There were stars who had parts in the show, like Reese Witherspoon and Tom Selleck, but also, inexplicably Lady Gaga, Cara Delevingne, David Beckham and, perhaps most forebodingly of all, Malala Yousafzai.
All conceivable reasons for having these people together in an episode of Friends were chilling. I had visions of Becks teaching the now 50-year-old male Friends to play “soccer” while Phoebe gets in hot water with BTS for ripping off one of their songs. Justin Bieber turning to the camera and saying “how you doing?”, for some reason, to 30 seconds of rapturous studio audience screams. Celebrated human rights advocate Yousafzai with a raw turkey carcass on her head. And let’s not forget that this special took so long to bring about because various cast members had refused to participate in any kind of Friends reunion in the 17 years since the show ended. Surely, it was going to be bad.
I could not have gone into watching Friends: The Reunion with a more cynical mindset. Like many millennials who pride themselves on maintaining the slightly tragic illusion that they’re not basic, I had considered myself post-Friends. My tastes were more sophisticated now than they were in 2004, when I went to watch the final episode at a sleepover and we all wept into our popcorn. Friends was tired and boring, a pointedly apolitical relic from the end of history, a snapshot of naïve Nineties hopefulness about the future.
And so I was surprised and embarrassed when I found myself crying within the first minute of the programme. It begins with the final scene in Friends, when the six main characters are standing in the empty apartment where Rachel and Monica had lived for almost all of the ten seasons. Then it shows the same stage set in the present day, all the familiar furniture restored, and each cast member arrives individually, for the first time since shooting that final episode. They meet, they hug, they cry, and resentfully I cried with them.
I felt like I was watching the leaders of a cult I was peripherally involved with receive a Nobel Prize. If the television was on in my late childhood and teens, it was tuned to Friends. It wasn’t so much that I “liked Friends”, but more that I was a bird in a world in which the air was Friends. I suckled at the teat of Friends. Friends courses through my blood stream. I can’t be objective about this programme. The connection runs too deep.
The Friends look old now. High definition TV and the best part of two decades will do that to anybody. But seeing their faces, buffed to a shine by botox here and sagging gracefully there, juxtaposed with clips from the early days of the show, felt poignant. When I cried, I wasn’t crying for love of Joey Tribbiani, but because I’m a sap who’s nearly 30 years old and aware that one day the crooked hand of death will come to rest on all our shoulders.
But aside from finding it curiously painful, I was also surprised to find that I enjoyed the special on its own terms. It consisted of table reads of classic scenes from the show, talking head interviews with famous and non-famous fans from around the world, behind the scenes looks at how the programme came together and crowd-pleasing blooper reels. There’s a bit where the cast play a version of the famous quiz from the episode where they’re competing for the right to live in the nicer apartment. Yes, there were moments of powerful cringe. James Corden was in it. Lady Gaga sang “Smelly Cat”. Justin Bieber wore the Spudnik costume. And the whole thing was emphatically smooth and amiable in a way that was surely designed to gloss over the fact that the cast haven’t been in the same room more than once in the last 17 years, and therefore can’t still all be close friends.
Towards the end, the cast are spread out on sofas and chairs in the purple apartment, and Matt LeBlanc turns to the others. “I have really enjoyed today,” he admits, “I really have. I didn’t know what to expect coming into this.” He’s right, it is unexpected that this special works. But it does.
“Friends: The Reunion” is available to view in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV