Like a million other gatherings originally planned for 2020, the “Friends” reunion was postponed a couple of times before finally taking place in 2021 — but unlike those other get-togethers, this one involved six actors who were largely unknown before 1994 and then skyrocketed to global fame and enormous wealth when their show became one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms of all time.
The unscripted and uneven but still satisfying and warmhearted “Friends: The Reunion” special premieres Thursday on HBO Max, which not so coincidentally is the home streaming platform for all 236 episodes of the ensemble comedy that stayed in the Nielsen Top 10 for its entire 10-season run. Filmed in April 2021 in and around the Warner Bros. soundstage where the show filmed, with the Central Perk and apartment sets reconstructed in all their colorful, prop-stuffed glory, “The Reunion” is pure nostalgia with a split personality. We bounce back and forth — sometimes jarringly so — between the quiet and lovely moments shared by the six cast members as they greet each other on the “Friends” set and share memories, tears and laughs, and an overly cheery gathering in front of the iconic fountain, with James Corden (a curious choice) hosting a Q-and-A that provides little insight and at one point turns into a fashion show with celebrities modeling some of the most memorable costumes from the series, and it’s even weirder than that sounds.
“The Reunion” kicks off with David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry arriving one by one on the reconstructed “Friends” set, and sharing anecdotes, e.g., we learn Courteney Cox often had her lines written out on the kitchen table or even in the sink, and in the early years the group ate nearly every meal together, even on weekends. Occasionally we’ll see a vintage clip and then we cut to the cast in present day, doing a table read from that same show. All six effortlessly slip into their respective characters, and it’s great to see them still in rhythm — and quite touching when Schwimmer and Aniston read the scene leading up to the first kiss between Ross and Rachel. There’s even a re-creation of the trivia contest from “The One With the Embryos,” in which Joey and Chandler competed against Monica and Rachel — only now it’s the actors competing to see who remembers the most about “Friends.” PLUS we get present-day cameos from some memorable guest stars.
Every time we cut to the panel discussion, with Corden lobbing softball questions (“The bloopers were so funny and when you look back, who had the loudest laugh?”) in front of a small, socially distanced audience, the special loses steam. It’s not as if we expect a “60 Minutes”-style grilling, but Corden is a terrific conversationalist and it would have been intriguing to hear him step it up a bit and ask the cast members to reflect on how their lives changed so drastically in the mid-1990s, or contract negotiations, or the personal challenges faced by some, or how they respond to the criticism of the show as reflecting only a white and relatively insulated version of New York life.
Still. Like all reunions, the best part of “Friends: The Reunion” is simply getting everyone back in the same room for the first time in far too long.