Friends Reunion: 17 years later, still beautiful and imperfect
Halfway through the much-awaited Friends reunion aired last night, David Schwimmer raises a point that might never have crossed the minds of the show's fans, who revel in a kind of fevered ownership of its stories.
"I don't think anyone else was experiencing what the five of us were experiencing," Schwimmer says of the experience of watching the show climb to monumental popularity from the second season onwards. The others murmur their assent. And yet, watching them return to the apartment and relive those early days, it was hard not to feel as though we were feeling the same emotions that they were feeling — nostalgia, yes, but also a degree of ambivalence.
The reunion opens, beautifully, the way it ended, at the shot of the yellow-framed purple door. And just like the silent, solitary, apartment-spanning post-credit scene of the final episode, this first scene 17 years later takes both viewers and the cast members on a deeply intimate tour of the sets they'd left behind. It is quiet, haunting, a little awkward, a little smaller than the way we remembered it. Was it always purple?
It was wonderful to peak in on behind-the-scenes stories from crowd favourite episodes — the apartment quiz, Ross' leather pants, his attempts to get Rachel and Chandler to PIVOT! — and for yours truly, it was wonderful-ler still to realise she shares her favourite Friends episode with David Beckham!
But it was also exactly like getting together with old friends after 17 long years have tempered irredeemable changes to everyone's lives and hearts. The cast members' recollections are wistful yet imperfect; no one remembers any of the episodes quite the same way. And their interactions are clumsy, they're not quite sure what to do with each other after the first few seconds of excitement have passed.
The format, similarly, falls shorts of appearing seamless as the episode cuts back and forth between scenes — the way Friends' episodes tended to do — with supporting characters dropping in for such short a span of time that it almost feels perfunctory. Even in the scenes at the couch in front of the famous fountain, their responses to the popular late night host James Corden are entertaining but abrupt. It's all over before one can truly sink into the conversation.
The real magic happens when the cast members re-enact scenes with a read through of the scripts, and unlike with their imperfect answers to most Friends trivia quizzes, it fills your heart to see them remember exactly how to get their voices to soar and roar and whine to mirror the effects of the original scenes. It fills your heart to see how alike Lisa Kudrow feels to Phoebe, sometimes; and how Matt LeBlanc couldn't BE any more like Joey.
Whether these little accents were pre-planned or not, these are the real tearjerkers in the episode, matched only by the experiences shared by Friends fans in another scene. These are ordinary viewers from across Asia, Africa, and Europe, talking about how coming home to Friends saved their lives in one way or another.
Us children of the 90s have grown up with two sagas that morphed into cultural powerhouses, JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the TV show Friends. Neither have aged well. While less controversial than the contentious opinions shared by the latter's author, Friends regardless cast a lot of problematic jokes at intellectual pursuits, homosexuality, and so much more. Its jokes sometimes fall flat, and its screenplay normalised straight white individuals as not only the norm but also the ideal.
In our love for the show, these are the things we need to question and not overlook, as viewers of the 21st century.
However, also like Harry Potter, Friends came back to us after a 17-year break, and both sank deep into the hearts of their fans because they froze our young loves, friendships, and adventures in a time that we had to leave behind, a time when one's "friends were one's family".
Just like the disconnect we felt with the choices and general vibe of a middle-aged Harry, Ron and Hermione upon seeing them as parents, watching the Friends reunion last night reminded me that Schwimmer is both right and wrong. Each single viewer's relationship with the show is an experience no one else in the world will have experienced, regardless of all the shared jokes; not even its makers and actors will know how much comfort and happiness the purple apartment channels into myself even today, every single day. The reunion reminded me that the magic of an old friendship can only be revisited, never recaptured, after a long hiatus. The source material is where the magic lies.
Sarah Anjum Bari is editor of Daily Star Books. Reach her at email@example.com or @wordsinteal on Instagram and Twitter.