By Anne T. Donahue
Last night, HBO Max aired their much-anticipated Friends reunion, and it was fine. Really! It was pretty good. It was okay. We survived it! You, me, and the six pals-slash-former co-stars who got together and reminisced. We learned that Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer had crushes on each other in the early days of filming, that the cast had only been together in one room at one other time since the series wrapped three dozen years ago, and that James Corden is inescapable, even in the situations we should be quite safe from him in. (Like the Friends reunion, bless us everyone.)
But the thing that stood out the most was that we didn’t really need any of this. Yes, Friends is fun and most of us like it and no, it hasn’t aged well even remotely, but it’s also allowed to just stay that way: a screengrab of the past. A TV show is permitted to remain merely a TV show, regardless of what a phenomenon it once was. And frankly, we don’t always need to resurrect what made us feel warm and fuzzy in hopes that it will still evoke those same emotions. Especially since reunions are never as magical as we’d like them to be. I believe you can go home again in a bevy of ways, but not when it comes to pop culture. The people who made our favourite TV shows worthy of watching are actors (see: human beings) whose lives extend past the DVD boxes we’ve stuffed their characters into. Which in no way negates how important a series or cast may have been, but is necessary when remembering that the people we’ve invested so much time and thought in are just that: people.
And the Friends reunion worked to highlight that in ways that were almost painful. For the first time in my tiny life, I felt like I was watching a high school reunion in real time, where I wasn’t sure everybody really missed each other as much as we hoped they would — but because the situation called for it, everyone still did their best. Nobody was mean or rude, but the distance between them all was palpable because of course it was. These people may have survived growing up under the glare of a very unforgiving spotlight, but that didn’t mean that once their work was done they were going to remain as close. In fact, it’d be weird if they did. The world is big, and people grow up and apart. And that’s actually part of why life is always so interesting.
Which is likely why the reunion kind of bummed me out. In the same spirit of Bart Simpson being asked to say, “I didn’t do it,” I felt like I was supposed to join in on the forced sense of comradery and “remember when?!” while the actors sat wondering why we still insist on tethering them to the past; why we can’t separate them from the characters we love who are very Not Real. I would’ve paid somebody to ask, “Wait, who is this for?” because I’m not actually very sure. It’s unfair for us to expect them to open up about their personal lives or their coping mechanisms or why it seems like there’s some real bankable distance between most of the actors in that room. Just like it’s unfair to project our Ross/Rachel emotions onto people who were being paid to pretend they were lobsters. I had no idea what to expect from this genre of reunion, but I know that it was strange of me to accept that it was happening at all. What drew me to Friends exists in one of ten TV seasons. It’s impossible to recreate it while being interrogated by James Corden.
So maybe that should be our lesson on reunions: we don’t actually have to do them anymore. Or, if we do, we ensure that they’re padded with the disclaimer that nothing we loved about the original series will exist in this moment because everybody’s changed, but are very polite and generous to be here. Maybe we learn to separate the past from our expectations today, and accept that in the same way we are not the same souls we were in the mid-2000s, most other people aren’t, either. (Including the actors we are or are not obsessed with.) Which is a gift in and of itself: instead of making Bart Simpson say the phrase, we can sit down with fresh eyes and celebrate the work instead of screaming, “Go back to the nineties, please, I beg you!” We can acknowledge that we’re hanging out with people who’ve Been Through It and whose memories of their time on set differ from ours because we’ve only ever seen very edited versions made for 30-minute timeslots. And from there, we can alleviate the pressure and create an environment conducive to conversation and genuine insight.
Or, we can not, and simply put together a clip show instead. Because either way, reunions are never going to quench or thirst for a link to memory lane. That is, unless we’re personally invited to somebody’s home where we can take a deep breath and admit that Ross just should’ve gone to Paris.
Need a little more Anne? Read more from Anne T. Donahue right here!