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TV review: ‘Friends: The Reunion’ leaves fans nostalgic while celebrity guests distract

(Courtesy of HBO Max)

"Friends: The Reunion"

Directed by Ben Winston

HBO Max

Released May 27

By Saba Sharfuddin

May 27, 2021 4:31 p.m.

Seventeen years later, it’s the one where they finally reunite.

Directed by Ben Winston and executive produced by the six main cast members, “Friends: The Reunion” is now available to stream on HBO Max. The anticipated reunion was originally scheduled to be filmed in 2020 but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic – however, it is well worth the wait. Shot at the comedy’s original soundstage at the Warner Bros. lot, the two-hour reunion is split into multiple exciting and often unexpected segments that make for a captivating special.

The one-off episode starts with Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and Courteney Cox reuniting on set. Despite a lifelong friendship, the cast members have not been on TV all together since the series finale – until this reunion. Yet their off-screen chemistry and the way they fall right back into their banter make it feel as if the cast never left. The unscripted conversations between the six incite nostalgia as it quickly becomes a personal conversation between the cast and the fans, with references to iconic phrases such as “pivot” and Joey’s (Matt LeBlanc) “How you doin’?” catchphrase.

Nostalgia is built into the themes throughout the show, and the special ensures that the past is celebrated in fresh ways. The best of this comes during the cast’s remake of the famous trivia game from the episode “The One with the Embryos.” With fun guest appearances from characters such as Mr. Heckles (Larry Hankin), the game is one of the more upbeat parts of the special. There are also many flashbacks and bloopers sprinkled throughout the special, although most are ones that any average fan has already seen.

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In addition to nostalgia, Winston also unveils the global impact “Friends” has had since its premiere in 1994. In an interview reel, people from different countries explain how “Friends” changed their lives. The video also features pop culture icon BTS member Kim Namjoon, describing how the show played a big part in his learning English and about true friendship. Featured fans in the reel say the series helped them through their depression, empowered them or served as their friend when they didn’t have any. The heartfelt reel is executed in a way that can make even the most uninterested viewers understand how the timeless show has been there for people even when the rain started to pour.

Furthermore, the show’s timelessness is also best shown in the cast’s table reads of past episodes. With impressive editing, the postproduction team seamlessly blends in the voices of the present actors reading the script to the actual scene. This reflects just how ageless the voices of the cast are as they integrate their classic inflections and emotions when reading their lines. In addition to demonstrating how the characters never left the actors, the table reads allow viewers to relive some of their favorite moments with the cast, such as when Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) finds out about Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) relationship, or Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) first kiss at Central Perk.

However, what drives the special home is how similar the cast is to their characters, as Perry cracks jokes only Chandler would, and Kudrow reacts in an uncannily similar way to Phoebe. What is, perhaps, even more surprising is the reveal that Ross and Rachel’s love story wasn’t just acting, as Schwimmer and Aniston admit to liking each other throughout season one.

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Despite this new piece of information, the reunion fails to provide stories deeper than what many already know. And while the episode claims to be unscripted, much of the interview with comedian James Corden feels inauthentic. The question of whether Ross and Rachel were on a break sounds like a broken record now in 2021, and topics that would have brought more depth to Corden’s segment – such as what happened to LeBlanc’s spinoff “Joey” or the actors’ individual struggles while filming the show – were ignored.

In addition, the purpose of the numerous celebrity guests in the special is unclear. Rather than complementing the intimate conversations of the cast, this hodgepodge of guest stars detracts from it, making the overall reunion a bit underwhelming. Skits like Lady Gaga’s abruptly joining Kudrow to play “Smelly Cat” offers no emotional value to fans, undermining the personal connection many may have been trying to glean from the special.

But regardless of how the audience feels about the celebrity guests, fans are going to want to pivot themselves to the couch with the nearest box of tissues before watching this one.

Because “Friends: The Reunion” isn’t a reunion of a cast – it’s a reunion of a family.

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Saba Sharfuddin
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