Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow
Director: Ben Winston
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
The high points of a long-gone but still-remembered sitcom that had a massive cultural impact on America and other parts of the world has returned to our screens in the form a tribute. It is entertaining without being exceptionally illuminating.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S - The Reunion is lively and emotionally engaging only in parts, but the episode overall is breezy enough for the audience not to feel at any point that it might be in danger of overstaying its welcome. The credit for that goes to the actors who made the sitcom work. They don't go wrong here either.
Kleenex is passed around liberally as the six principal members of the F.R.I.E.N.D.S cast - Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer - reunite on Stage 24 of the Warner Bros Lot (where the principal F.R.I.E.N.D.S set was meticulously recreated for the special episode) and reminisce about the show that made their careers and gave them abiding worldwide fame.
The significance of the reunion is driven home by the fact that since F.R.I.E.N.D.S wound up 17 years ago, the six cast members have been in a room together only on one occasion although they do reveal that they have continued to be in touch through other means. When they physically troop into the studio one by one for this unscripted episode, most of them are unable to suppress their emotions. But once the stage has been set for this remarkable reunion of long-time F.R.I.E.N.D.S, the episode settles into a monotonous rhythm and plays out more like a freewheeling tell-all documentary about a point in television history when a sitcom could get away with being an unapologetically all-white, cis-gender affair.
All these years later, we cannot help wondering why Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross had no Black or gay friends. To be sure, we know that Chandler's dad was a gay cross-dresser but he wasn't someone that the show was interested in holding up as a role model for anybody. Does F.R.I.E.N.D.S - The Reunion make any sort of amends for what the show was nearly two decades ago? Yes, but in an indirect way. Besides getting Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, the Korean boy band BTS and Indian-origin American showbiz star Mindy Kaling to talk about the reasons why they love F.R.I.E.N.D.S, the episode features fans from different parts of the word, including a few from Africa, holding forth on what set the sitcom apart from them. A few even speak about how the long-running F.R.I.E.N.D.S helped them tide over emotionally and psychological taxing situations by spreading good cheer and laughter.
For good measure, Lady Gaga puts in an appearance, joins Lisa Kudrow to sing "Smelly Cat', and signs off by thanking the actor who played masseuse and self-taught musician Phoebe "for being the different one" among the six friends. It is another matter that F.R.I.E.N.D.S did not exactly celebrate differences.
Directed by Ben Winston, F.R.I.E.N.D.S - The Reunion, filmed in the middle of the current pandemic in Burbank, California, celebrates the lasting bonds that were forged during the making of the series between 1994 and 2004. While recollections of how the sitcom was born and the six main actors were cast come from the show's creators David Crane, Marta Kauffman and Kevin S. Bright, the onscreen stars of the show grab the opportunity to roll back the years and help each other savour the remembrances of the joy of creating a television classic that has stood the test of time despite the fact that not every element that went into its plot has aged equally well.
The special 100-minute episode, an HBO Max production that is streaming in India on Zee5 Premium, is a blend of diverse components. A large part of it is a talk show hosted by James Corden in front of the iconic fountain that was the backdrop for the F.R.I.E.N.D.S credits sequence. Several guest stars and supporting cast members (including Reese Witherspoon, who tells how excited she was to land the role of Rachel's sister), share their thoughts about the sitcom, while a sort of a party game designed to jog the memories of the sestet is intercut into the episode.
It is nostalgia that F.R.I.E.N.D.S - The Reunion obviously banks on heavily. One of the more interesting points in the special episode when Kauffman and Crane recount how each of the six actors were brought on board, at least one of them after much beseeching and cajoling because he was disillusioned with television and had returned to theatre. "Casting the show," says Crane, "was really hard, much harder than we expected". All the hard work that went into developing the show and getting the right actors for each of the key roles led to the stupendous success that F.R.I.E.N.D.S enjoyed over an extended period. "We somehow entered the zeitgeist," says Kauffman.
The episode strings together the best moments from the 236 episodes of F.R.I.E.N.D.S as remembered by the six actors. They take the audience back to the ten momentous years (1994-2004) that the show had the world in thrall but not in any particular chronological order. Not that it matters. There is much else in store for fans of the show: confessions galore, including the crush two of the cast members had on each other early in the life of the show and how a monkey became a source of great professional and personal trouble for one actor who asserts he is an animal lover.
Amusing outtakes are incorporated into the episode for laughs while emotions are allowed to run free as the actors go down memory lane to pick out their best moments from the ten seasons. If you happen to be an inveterate F.R.I.E.N.D.S fan, there is much on offer here. And do watch out for the F.R.I.E.N.D.S Reunion fashion show that has celebs modelling a few of the most memorable outfits from the show. English model and actress Cara Delevingne brings the house down as she catwalks in one of the most outlandish costumes ever created for F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S - The Reunion puts a finger on what exactly it was that made F.R.I.E.N.D.S such a phenomenon. But even if the larger picture that it is trying conjure up isn't as clear and constructive as it is meant to be, the F.R.I.E.N.D.S cast members retain much of their charm. It runs off on their reunion.