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Monday, June 21, 2021

Friends Reunion: An intimate homecoming

Friends: The Reunion: The carefully curated format -- a hybrid of recollection and preservation -- features people around the world professing their love for the sitcom with reasons

Written by Ishita Sengupta | Mumbai |
May 28, 2021 12:30:04 pm
Friends: The Reunion is streaming on Zee5.

Early on in the hotly-anticipated Friends: The Reunion, host James Corden throws in some figures. The sitcom, which had a phenomenal 10-year run from 1994-2004 and assumed a life of its own in the streaming era, has been watched 100 billion times and averaged 25 million viewers a week. The numbers are staggering. Then again, it should not be. On any given day, it features among the top 10 trending shows on Netflix, India. But even without the crutch of statistics, it is impossible to deny its overwhelming popularity. Everyone has a story about Friends which has little to do with the show and everything to do with them.

Speculations about a reboot have long been sustained in the public discourse. Even today, a cursory search on the Internet throws up Quora threads debating the possibility of a potential Friends film. The only thing that matched the show’s persisting fame was the dogged patience of fans. All bore fruit when a reunion was confirmed in February last year. An identical declaration– “It’s happening!”– was shared across social media platforms by the cast members. Back then, the designed grandiosity was furnished as a launchpad for HBO Max, a newsy celebration of the streaming service acquiring the series from Netflix. The world altered soon after. The reunion which eventually took place was scaled down by restrictions and tied by intimacy. It was a crossover of a reality show and a documentary, a confluence of fact and fiction.

Directed by Ben Winston, the special marked the second time in 17 years when the cast members — Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Mathew Perry, David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc — came together since the show wrapped up. During runtime of an hour and 40 minutes, they sit against the iconic fountain and before a live audience, gather in the apartment they had walked out for coffee one last time (the set has been recreated to perfection), restage the premise of The One with the Embryos (Monica and Rachel are still clueless about Chandler’s profession).

In between, creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman recall the uncertainty of the auditioning process in separate videos (both Aniston and Perry were doing different shows) and later sit in the audience like proud guardians. So do Elliott Gould and Christina Pickles (Jack and Judy Geller) who confess taking their roles as parents too seriously and worrying for the cast. This is intercepted by the six actors sitting around a table and reading lines from certain scenes, their camaraderie and craft on full display. Like no time had passed.

But then, time has passed. It has been 17 years since they bowed out. In the interim, the show’s charm has been consistently counterattacked by more thorny issues — lack of diversity, a deluge of homophobic jokes, sexist undertones in characterisations. The special does nothing to offset the mounting criticism. Instead, it plays out as an hour-long reminder of what constituted the charm in the first place. The carefully curated format — a hybrid of recollection and preservation — features people around the world professing their love for the sitcom with reasons. For some, it was a reassurance of having friends when they did not have. For others, the characters were a distraction from their own personal tragedy. If some had stories about Friends (Malala Yousafzai was introduced to it by her best friend), others sought their story in Friends.

In any other world, such deliberate omissions would have contributed to a distressing blindspot, an intentional disregard for the cultivated awareness of the present. The intent of the creators to only highlight the sunnier side of the show which has long been in conflict with its fraught legacy would have stood out as an instance of entitled myopia.

But rendered stagnant in a pandemic-riddled world for over a year with a bleak future to look forward to, our relationship with the past has transformed. The idea of a Friends Reunion thrived on encashing nostalgia. But back then the past was a source of comfort. Now, it is aspirational. Nostalgia was a feeling then, it is a way of life now. By focussing just on the six friends, celebrating what they offered to us for 10 years, all the while resisting any leakage from life, the special achieves what it sets out to do: a coveted reunion with six individuals whose friendships survived even when we stopped looking. It does not revisit as much as recapture the past, delaying conversations about dissections to a later date.

At one point David Schwimmer says that no one other than the six of them could understand what went on for all those years. This sentiment of insularity runs through the entirety of the episode. Even when they mention past relationships, it is pertaining to each other. Aniston and Schwimmer confess they had crushes on each other but none acted upon it. Ross and Rachel come to mind. Like no time had passed.

But then time has passed. The people on the couch are in their 50s, no longer sitting with mugs in their hands. They have been affronted by life. Chandler is particularly quiet and Phoebe is frazzled by a fly which in the past she would have found a deeper connection with. They wear specs and need to be reminded of things. They have met after 17 years. But you still cannot sit with them.

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