Originally intended to help launch HBO Max, "Friends: The Reunion" finally hits the streaming service, in big, slightly bloated, unapologetically nostalgic form. A valentine to fans, the nearly two-hour special is inevitably hard-pressed to justify the hype, working best when it lets the cast casually reminisce, while getting carried away with cameos, some of which, well, couldn't be more random.
"Friends" signed off in 2004, and part of the special's appeal is simply seeing the band back together again, looking older (to varying degrees) and undeniably a whole lot richer. One by one, they return to the set and soundstage, exchanging slightly awkward hugs (welcome to the Covid era) and sharing memories.
Directed and produced by "The Late Late Show with James Corden" producer Ben Winston, who recently did a fine job overseeing the Grammys, the special uses a mishmash of techniques to orchestrate and structure this walk down memory lane, including an in-person interview with Corden in front of an appreciative, socially distanced audience.
Some of those touches play better than others, with perhaps the best being snippets in which the stars -- Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer -- engage in table reads of old episodes, intercut with snippets of the originals. It's the closest to a scripted "Friends" reunion we're apt to get, and fascinating to watch how seamlessly they appear to slide back into these roles, 17 years later.
Other highlights include a taped piece in which producers Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane discuss casting the series -- and all the serendipity that went into bringing these six actors together -- and interviews with fans around the world, discussing what the show meant to them.
"We didn't want stars," Crane recalls during the discussion about the casting process. Instead, "Friends" made its players into stars, leaving them in a very different place when they signed off a decade after it began.
At the same time, "The Reunion" labors in places to conjure a sense of fun, putting the actors through game-show-style trivia tests and enlisting celebrities whose involvement alternately feels arbitrary and unnecessary.
There are also notable oversights, such as the cast's all-for-one, one-for-all approach when negotiating their contracts in the later seasons -- a novel tactic, reflecting the program's true ensemble nature, the actors' solidarity, and the financial juggernaut that "Friends" became for NBC and production company Warner Bros. (which, like CNN and HBO Max, is a unit of WarnerMedia).
Then again, "Friends: The Reunion" reflects the present media age as much as the mid-1990s period that birthed the show, when a network sitcom hit of this magnitude was still possible. Given the hunger for content and recognizable titles, what might have been a Museum of Television and Radio retrospective has essentially been blown up into highly promotable ammunition for the streaming wars.
Taped in April, the special covers considerable ground that could inspire various "Friends"-esque episode titles, but when all's said and done, a few contenders pretty well apply: "The One That Celebrates the Show," "The One That Promotes a Streaming Service," "The One That Tries A Little Too Hard," and at its best, "The One That Gives Fans A Lot of What They Wanted."
"Friends: The Reunion" premieres May 27 on HBO Max.