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Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” was released as a single in February of 1996, just weeks after Super Bowl XXX helped deliver nearly 53 million viewers to a two-part episode of Friends. Much of the discourse surrounding the song has focused on how its listed situations — like having 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife — are not, in fact, ironic.
Very little of the discourse has focused on what it would actually be like to have 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife, and how context-dependent the situation would be. Like, say you need to spread butter on toast. You’d very quickly figure out how to make do with your spoons. If, however, you needed to carve a Thanksgiving turkey, no number of spoons is going to help you surgically perform the task. Having 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife isn’t ironic, nor is it inherently disastrous. It’s just a questionable deployment of resources.
HBO Max’s Friends: The Reunion, a long-awaited unscripted gathering of the six stars of NBC’s Friends, is like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife — neither as circumstantially convenient as butter-spreading or as inevitably chaotic as turkey-carving. Director Ben Winston — fresh off the triumph of this spring’s partially quarantined Grammys — has approached the reunion as a series of games, performances and structured bits, a relentlessly busy 104 minutes that yield an impressive array of funny and emotional moments likely to generally, if not fully, satisfy many or even most dedicated fans.
The special is a complex thing with many moving parts. What I personally wanted, though, was a simple thing: I wanted Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer sitting on a stage telling stories. That was all I required from this thing and it’s surely here in some capacity, but the choice has been made to sacrifice depth for volume, one knife for ever-so-many spoons. At the risk of deviating from my Morissettian core analogy, the best illustration of what works and doesn’t work about Friends: The Reunion is the introductory scene: As the castmembers arrive one by one at Stage 24 on the WB Lot and greet each other with hugs and emotion, three times people reference how good their old colleagues smell, but nobody expounds upon what they actually smell like.
By a wide margin, those scenes on Stage 24, redecorated in exacting detail to capture the look and feel of the Friends set, are my favorite part of the reunion special. The actors wander around the stage and, as memories hit them (or as producers shout prompts that were later edited out), they swap stories, some that they all recollect, others greeted with the encouraging dead-eyed smile of a buddy who doesn’t want to tell their pal that something that made a huge imprint on one person’s life was the other’s flotsam and jetsam. They may not share each other’s precise mental snapshots, but no less than family members meeting at a far-flung wedding or your high school class getting together after 25 years, they have a shorthand that includes inside jokes and a sensitivity to the poignancy of age. The latter is made more potent by the sometimes acknowledged and sometimes ignored reality that some of them haven’t aged a day since 2004 and others don’t look or sound exactly as you might remember. (Before choosing to mock or pity anybody here for their appearance, spend 20 seconds glancing at your own photos from 2004 and then don’t.)
The other reunion-y part of the reunion, geared specifically to the kind of anecdotes I personally craved, is an outdoor interview in front of the famous fountain conducted by James Corden. This is where, through either Corden’s queries or audience questions, we get the buzzy moments people will be tweeting about on Thursday and Friday — whether it’s Schwimmer’s detailed and serious grudge against the simian thespian who played Marcel or a slightly jaw-dropping revelation of a not-so-secret cast crush. It’s also where Corden encourages a lot of the more superficial conversations. Why make, “Were they on a break?” a yes/no speed-round question instead of, “With 25 years of accumulated wisdom, has your perspective changed on whether or not they were on a break?” It’s the difference between glibness and introspection. Probably I’m a fool for wanting the latter.
I can freely admit that most of the structured bits are reasonably funny, sometimes to the point of real amusement. The introduction of a trivia game in homage to “The One with the Embryos” is actually completely inspired, a great way to spark memories and conversation, except that here it’s used primarily to introduce cameos and check off as many boxes as possible as quickly as possible, instead of allowing for breathing room. Brief table reads of key scenes contribute to the checklist feel and, more than anything, illustrate how magnificently Lisa Kudrow can still access her character. All and sundry make it clear here that no Friends revival is ever coming with this main cast, but if somebody found a way to develop a new generation version of the show, Kudrow would be a good pick to play a supporting role and offer continuity.
So many comic bits just whiz by. There’s a fashion show! Kudrow sings with a superstar special guest! The cast watches and reacts to bloopers and one particularly harrowing piece of behind-the-scenes footage! Various stars share their favorite scenes, moments and characters! Because, like, who doesn’t want to know what Jon Snow from Game of Thrones finds funny? It’s hard to tell if these bits were included out of uncertainty as to whether the cast was going to open up sufficiently, or just out of a desire to top the countless cast reunions that COVID-19 allowed to happen over Zoom.
There’s so much ground to cover and you know this isn’t a “Gotcha!” kind of special — so don’t expect any conversation about more serious topics, like the show’s much-discussed lack of diversity, even from separate interviews with executive producers David Crane, Marta Kauffman and Kevin Bright. Those three appear in one-on-one chats that feel like they were added when somebody thought, “Wait, we can’t actually do a reunion without including the creators in some capacity, can we?” Still, it’s hard not to notice that the special has guest appearances from, like, the guy who played Mr. Heckles, but not from Aisha Tyler or Lauren Tom or Gabrielle Union. It’s notable. And when the special includes footage of people from India and Ghana and other international locations talking about how this show about six pretty white friends still spoke to them, those interviews are effective and even powerful, while still offering a hint of excuse-making.
Finally, your response to Friends: The Reunion will come down to what you want from it. Plenty of people will be overjoyed by the “10,000 spoons” tactic, and I got a lot of enjoyment here, despite thinking a different utensil would have been more ideal. Which isn’t ironic at all.
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