Nothing, outside of the Super Bowl, gathers titanic television audiences together anymore, but let’s conduct a thought experiment: How many people would tune in to see Joey Tribbiani say “Howyoudoin’?” one more time?
We live in the golden age of the TV reboot. All the nostalgic fervour boomeranging shows like Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, Will & Grace and Veronica Mars back into production, though, pales in comparison to the undying popularity of Friends. The NBC sitcom has attracted new generations of fans via Netflix, many of whom were not yet alive when Rachel first set foot in Central Perk in her wedding dress.
A Friends reboot would likely be a seismic event in American culture, releasing an infinite gusher of money for its creators and stars. So why is it highly unlikely?
I’ve spent the past two years interviewing veterans of the show for my new book Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era. With the 25th anniversary of the show’s premiere this month, I thought now would be a good time to speak to some of them again to get their thoughts about the possibility of a Friends reunion. One thing: The show won’t be coming back anytime soon. Here are some of the reasons why.
Get Out Before They Go Down
The show’s appeal was in its highly idealized depiction of the stages of encroaching maturity, from first jobs to first serious relationships — likely one of the reasons for its sustained popularity among adolescents curious to glimpse what their futures might be. But a returned Friends would no longer be about the drama of youth.
“We set out to make a show about people in their 20s,” said Kevin Bright, a Friends executive producer. “And I hate to break the news to you, they’re not 20 anymore. They’re 50.”
While other revived shows, like Gilmore Girls, have skillfully made use of the passage of time to tweak their characters, David Crane, one of the creators of Friends, told me he remains loyal to the motto they pitched to NBC in 1994: “It’s that time in your life when your friends are your family.”
When we left Friends, the sextet were starting families of their own, and so returning to the status quo ante of bottomless coffees and bottomless chitchat would necessarily feel artificial. And while watching the three happy couples (and Joey) navigate middle age might be amusing and emotionally rewarding, it would not be Friends as we know it.
“You’re just going to get slammed, criticized and hated,” longtime Friends writer Greg Malins said. “The headline for every review [would be] ‘This Is No “Friends.”’”
The internet still loves Friends, but would it love new installations of a series about six well-heeled, heterosexual, white New Yorkers and their romantic lives? Or would it love the changes and additions necessary to make Friends work in 2019?
“What happened to the twins? Is one of them a drug addict?” Bright said of the possible new storylines. “Is one of the six of them divorced? Because they have to be. No 100% of friends’ marriages last.”
And even were Bright, Crane and creator Marta Kauffman eager to bring back the show, there is that small matter of persuading the six stars of “Friends” to pick up the mantle. Fifteen years after the show’s finale, its lead actors are in notably different places in their careers, with varying degrees of enthusiasm for their alma mater.
Both David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow had to be cajoled into returning for the last seasons of Friends. Nothing in their more adventurous work since the show ended — Kudrow on the dizzyingly self-referential chronicle of stardom lost and desperately sought, The Comeback, and Schwimmer in theatre and smaller roles like that of Robert Kardashian in The People v. O.J. Simpson — suggests they would want to revisit their most famous roles. Matt LeBlanc has already seen how a surefire hit can go sour with the short-lived Friends spinoff Joey, and had far more success mocking his own fame on the Showtime series Episodes, co-created by Crane. Matthew Perry has worked steadily in television since Friends and was noticeably absent from a 2016 tribute to Friends director James Burrows attended by the rest of the cast. And Jennifer Aniston is already committed to a splashy new series on Apple TV Plus, The Morning Show.
(Previous reports have placed great emphasis on pronouncements by Aniston that she would be open to a Friends reunion, but these should likely be read as loose statements of enthusiasm rather than declarations of intent. “I think it’s casual talk-show stuff,” said Bright.)
“People have to accept that creative people do want to do other things,” Bright said. “At a certain point, going backward, they didn’t want to do the show anymore.”
When Were You Under Me?
Couldn’t the Friends creators just find a new batch of six charming 20-somethings to have New York adventures in improbably large apartments? Technically, sure. But “the only thing that I think would motivate anyone to do that is greed, and that’s not a good enough reason,” Crane said.
Besides, Friends is still minting money as a streaming hit. Netflix doesn’t generally release streaming figures, but the show is so popular, the service paid $100 million to keep it through 2019. (Next year Friends moves to WarnerMedia’s HBO Max platform.) So where another show’s producers might be tempted to return as a way to cash in, the ongoing streaming success of the original Friends makes the creators far less likely to come back solely for a payday.
“It’s like winning the lottery and then buying more tickets,” Crane said. “Why? You won!”
We Were [Never] on a Break
Ultimately, many Friends veterans are leery of doing anything that might damage the show’s legacy.
“I think everyone on ‘Friends’ respects that it was just this perfect thing,” said Todd Stevens, one of the show’s producers. “It was lightning in a bottle — I don’t think you can revisit that 25 years later and expect that those ions will still be so charged.”
The only pathway Stevens sees to Friends ever returning is to wait another quarter-century and then make it a show about an elderly Manhattan trio: “It’s the three guys on a park bench and it’s like ‘The Sunshine Boys.’”
Friends will likely not come back for one simple reason: It has never truly gone away. As you read this, longtime fans are soothing their jangled nerves with an episode or six after a tough day at work, and a teenager is discovering that a show from their parents’ youth might make them feel a bit less alone.
“Look, I feel so blessed in terms of the success the show has had and continues to have,” Crane said. “If it all ended today, I couldn’t be happier.”
He paused for a moment.
“But hopefully it won’t.”