The Friends Mythology Has Come Full Circle

The long-awaited reunion special is an uneasy continuation of the sitcom’s easy fantasies.

The 'Friends' cast on a couch
HBO Max / Getty / The Atlantic

This article contains light spoilers for Friends: The Reunion.

The nostalgia will be monetized. Friends: The Reunion premieres today on HBO Max. The long-awaited special is not a reboot—not another sitcom refurbished and resold, old characters living new stories—but instead a splashy gathering of the original show’s cast. It features a dizzying hodgepodge of interviews, cameos, and talking-head testimonials, many of them earnestly telethonic in tone. The reunion turns Friends’ fictions into a reality show. It celebrates a sitcom, yes. More specifically, however, it celebrates that sitcom’s enduring popularity. Friends, in the years since it premiered, has become ubiquitous. Its reunion special spends nearly two hours frantically arguing that the ubiquity is deserved.

One of the segments is an all-cast interview with the late-night host James Corden. Another finds the cast visiting the show’s old soundstage, which has been reconstructed for the occasion. (“Wow,” David Schwimmer murmurs, wandering the set. “It’s—I mean, this is beautiful. It’s beautiful.”) Another segment finds the actors gathered in the space formerly known as Monica’s living room, playing an updated version of Ross’s famous trivia game. Another finds them doing retrospective table reads of notable scenes: the one with the jellyfish, the one where everyone finds out. There’s also a blooper reel, a fashion show, Lisa Kudrow singing “Smelly Cat,” and many, many tears. The unapologetic maximalism adds up to a special that is both unhurried in length—an hour and 44 minutes—and frenzied in tone.

But the Friends special is not merely a cast reunion. It is also an advertisement for the show’s move to HBO Max. Any good ad will feature testimonials, and much of this one is dedicated to the argument that Friends is a really good sitcom. We get endorsements of the show from celebrities who guest-starred on it (Reese Witherspoon, Tom Selleck) and celebrities who simply love it (David Beckham, Kit Harington, Mindy Kaling, the members of BTS). These cameos have a teasing lack of logic to them (Jon Snow??), and the chaos is illustrative: When you have achieved the hegemony that Friends has achieved, you don’t have to explain yourself. You can include in your celebration a fashion show that finds Justin Bieber dressed as a potato, and rest assured that people will roll with it. There’s an ease that comes with creating an ad for something so many people have already bought.

The 'Friends' cast does a script read
The Friends cast does a script read. (HBO Max)

The special thus treats nostalgia as a kind of absolution. Friends, after all, has not just failed to age well; it showed its failings even when it was young. Its jokes are sometimes homophobic; its plots are occasionally cruel; its cast, and its world, are almost entirely white. The show is popular, and it is, as a separate proposition, beloved. But the affection tends to come with an asterisk. Many other series have similar problems, and use their versions of a reunion or reboot to acknowledge that the world has moved forward around them. The Friends version, instead, goes out of its way to change the subject.

One of the most striking segments of the reunion features a series of fans from around the world attesting to Friends as a fact of globalization. Vivian, from Ghana, tells the audience what it meant to her that Monica proposed to Chandler, rather than vice versa. “Watching that episode,” she says, “got me thinking that I can also take charge of my own relationship.” A man in India says that Friends helped him grieve after his father died. Liz, from Mexico, talks about the isolation of being queer, and how Friends helped her feel a little less lonely. The finale to these testimonials is an endorsement from Malala Yousafzai, the education-equality activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and her best friend, Vee. “You’re Joey with a hint of Phoebe,” Vee tells her friend. Malala grins at this. Later, she adds: “Friends brought friends together.”

A reason Friends has become so popular with people who were not yet born when it premiered, critics have surmised, is that the show revels in the constraints of physical immediacy. Friends’ world is hermetic. Its characters interact not over the cool distance of the digital—text, TikTok—but rather in person. They live next door to one another, across the street from one another, down the block from one another. Their lives are shaped by the fatalism of actual proximity.

That intimacy also reflects the sitcom’s achievements: The sitcom, as a form, is a mechanism of constraint. Friends was in some sense in dialogue with The Real World, which premiered two years earlier, in 1992, and also concerned itself with the huddled lives of telegenic young people. But while The Real World exploited conflict, Friends minimized it. The show featured a world devoid of repercussions. Phoebe, acting as a surrogate for her brother and his wife, gave birth to triplets, and the whole thing was rarely mentioned again. Ross married Emily; she was banished in short order from the show’s world—a mere complication to the on-again, off-again romance of Ross and Rachel. Friends was so devoted to its fantasy—youth, love, the giddy possibilities of each—that it sloughed away any hard fact that did not serve its aspirations. The show had no evident politics. Its characters occasionally struggled with money but never doubted their class. Friends offered a world devoid of the world.

The show’s reunion has now continued the tradition. The special is fan service that also attempts to rationalize the fandom itself. It is trying its best to have it both ways—the enforced intimacy of the sitcom and the market imperative of the global franchise. It is a telethon guided by a tautology: Why is Friends so popular? Because Friends is so popular. Nostalgia, the special suggests, is its own value. Ubiquity is its own selling point. How could Friends be wrong, when so many people say it’s right?