The ‘Friends’ Reunion and What it Could Mean

Written by Nia Thomas

Now approaching the 17th year since the generation-defining sitcom aired its finale, the highly anticipated Friends reunion special has now wrapped filming. 

What do we know so far?

The special set to air on HBO’s streaming service HBO Max, which launches in May, will star the original cast of six main characters – played by Courteney Cox (Monica), Jennifer Aniston (Rachel), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe), Matthew Perry (Chandler), Matt LeBlanc (Joey) and David Schwimmer (Ross). The actors will reunite at the original Friends set at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.

What has been made clear is that this special is not a new Friends episode. Instead, the actors will be appearing as themselves in the programme, which is set to feature nostalgic never-before-seen clips.

HBO Max released a statement to clear up any confusion surrounding the reunion show that fans have been anticipating for nearly two decades. The statement reads, This will be the first time since the show ended that the whole cast will be together, and on the original sets to reminisce.”

The statement confirms that there are plenty “of great surprises in store” and “rare behind-the-scenes footage they are eager to share.” 

The special was originally set to film in March 2020 but was pushed back due to the pandemic. It was later pushed to August 2020 but filming had to be cancelled again. David Schwimmer – who played Monica’s older brother Ross Geller – stressed that while they were all keen to get the filming done, it would only happen once they “determine it’s safe to do so”. 

Fans were overjoyed to learn that filming for the programme wrapped this April, after a three day stint. However, while filming is now complete, there is still no set broadcast date. This is expected to be announced in the upcoming months.

Rumours speculate that each star is set to be paid between $2.5 and $3 million for their appearances, nearly tripling the then-record breaking $1 million per episode they were earning back during the series’ run. At the time, this was the biggest ever deal made for a 30 minute episode. 

Friends’ Lasting Legacy

25 years since its pilot aired in 1994, The Economist declared Friends “the world’s favourite sitcom” in 2019. Netflix acquired the series for a whopping $100 million just for the rights to 12 months of streaming. 

All of this is, of course, understandable. The Friends finale, which aired on 6 May 2004, is the 5th most-watched finale ever, garnering 52.46 million viewers. In fact, estimates suggest that the show still brings in $1 billion a year for Warner Bros., making $20 million annually for the cast who negotiated for “a portion of the syndication profits”.

Friends was generation-defining for those in their twenties when it aired, who saw themselves reflected in the characters. A study found that 81% of adults aged 35 to 54 years have watched Friends in some capacity. 

However, Netflix – along with re-runs in the UK firstly on E4, and more recently Comedy Central – has meant the show has been able to find a whole new audience, some of whom were not even born when the finale aired. The same study proved as much, indicating that 64% of people aged 18 to 34 have watched the sitcom.

Are Old Sitcoms Better Left in the Past?

With the onset of a brand-new, young audience comes some obvious criticisms about certain jokes in Friends. Obviously, as a show that is over a quarter of a century old, some aspects are going to be severely outdated – social justice and awareness of offensive terms/stereotypes is much more prevalent nowadays. But, given these discrepancies, do we need to be rebooting these shows?

Homophobia was particularly rife within the show, with gay people often being the butt of many jokes. So much so, that an internet user made a compilation of all the homophobic jokes in the series, amassing 50 minutes of footage. 

Ross flips out when he catches Ben, his son, playing with a Barbie and a whole episode is dedicated to him being ‘uncomfortable’ with hiring a male nanny – played by Freddie Prinze Jr – to care for baby Emma. Chandler does all he can to prove he is not gay when a co-worker accidentally assumes he is, and Joey is frequently mocked for being feminine – most notably in the episode which centres on Joey using a handbag.

Transphobia was even more potent, namely when discussing the identity of Chandler’s dad. His father identified as a woman and was named Helena but was frequently deadnamed throughout the show, and the gang of six rarely recognised her gender identity. In fact, Kathleen Turner, the actress who played Helena, said she felt the show hadn’t “aged well”, in an interview with GAY TIMES

The show is also riddled with fat-shaming, from beginning to end. Frequent flashbacks or references to “Fat Monica” are supremely problematic. Every aspect of this characterisation is offensive, from “svelte” Courteney Cox donning the fat suit to “lazy” laughs at her expense. In ‘The One That Could Have Been’ – where Monica didn’t become thin, as is canon – Monica is mocked as a 30-year-old virgin (apparently fat people don’t have sex) and her entire personality is built around an obsession with food.

So, do we really need a Friends reboot?

It is worth noting that this episode is not a reboot. It’s a reunion, reflecting on a show that characterised a generation.  Unlike the imminent Sex and the City reboot, which is best left in the past – especially without Samantha Jones, the Friends reunion has the scope to recognise its downfalls alongside its meteoric popularity.

 Co-creator Marta Kauffman herself has recognised the out-of-touch nature of some jokes within the show, and this is key. There is room for reminiscing about Friends, so long as creators and fans alike recognise the impact of problematic jokes on marginalised communities. If anything, apologising for past mistakes is vital in healing wounds caused by inappropriate, misjudged humour.

In an ever-evolving era of ‘cancel culture’, younger generations who find comfort in Friends, while at the same time recognising its pitfalls, also benefit from this acknowledgement of the show’s uncomfortable history. By doing this, Friends will undoubtedly serve as both a reassuring ‘90s throwback, and a reminder for the work to be done for representing marginal communities in television for generations to come.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr. Image licence found here. No changes have been made to this image.

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