Why Friends: The Reunion is a missed opportunity at course correction for a homogeneous, oversimplified show

It does not take a genius to figure that Friends has not aged well. One cannot really undo the past but, when you are putting out a new piece of content, one can right some of those wrongs.

Karishma Upadhyay May 29, 2021 08:57:50 IST
Why Friends: The Reunion is a missed opportunity at course correction for a homogeneous, oversimplified show

Still from Friends: The Reunion

“Has anyone got a question tonight for the cast of Friends?” asks James Corden to the live audience that has turned up to watch Friends: The Reunion Special. A lady in the audience stands up, and asks, “Friends was obviously amazing for all of you. But was there anything you didn’t like?”

“Way to keep it positive,” quips Corden before relaying the question to the six primary cast members of the legendary sitcom. David Schwimmer then proceeds to make it all about Marcel, the monkey. But that’s what we’ve come to expect with Friends — a joke and a “positive” spin on everything, right?

The Friends reunion special has been hogging entertainment headlines for the last couple of weeks. To us Gen-Xers, this does not come as a surprise at all. The show, as Corden helpfully informs us, has been watched over a 100 billion times across all platforms. No piece of television content comes remotely close to defining the '90s zeitgeist. For most of us living our teenage years halfway across the globe, Friends was the first peek into what we thought was ‘the real America.’ It was different from the stuff we saw in Hollywood movies, and was about regular people who were our age or just a little bit older than ourselves. We saw them sitting around drinking coffee, and ‘slumming it’ in their apartments in New York. We felt their daily struggles, laughed and cried with them. We were fully invested. And if the reunion is to be believed, I speak for millions across the world — from Africa to India, Korea and Japan. 

If the love affair started from a place of naïveté, the ongoing love affair with the show is usually clouded by nostalgia. And the prerequisite for that is a pair of rose-tinted lenses firmly in place finding a ready excuse for every moment that is now seen as cringey in this new politically correct world of ours. Real life, unfortunately, does not come kitted out with a special pair of glasses. The show has steadily been getting its share of flak from subsequent generations.

After all, Manhattan is only about 50 percent white — you cannot blame people for wondering how there were not any people of colour on the show? Also, all the lead characters are straight which is fine, but do you really have to be making homophobic jokes and shaming fat people?

It does not take a genius to figure that Friends has not aged well. One cannot really undo the past but, when you are putting out a new piece of content, one can right some of those wrongs.

So could this Reunion Special have been an opportunity to set the record straight? Most of us have grown in the last quarter of a century — it would have been nice to know that our favourite characters have grown up a little as well.

Unfortunately, the format of the Reunion special does not quite lend to this because the people who turn up are the actors instead of the characters. I logged into this one hoping to see everyone congregating at Central Perk for an afternoon of fun. Maybe a grey-haired Ross looks more studious than ever as he stares at his watch because Rachel’s flight back from Paris is late. Chandler and Monica walk in looking ruffled because they are paying the nanny overtime to look after the half-dozen children that they have adopted in the two decades since we last saw them. Phoebe is late because she has just been through a break-up with her fifth husband. Joey’s right there because he bought the cafe from Gunther with the money he made in Hollywood, and is now trying his hand at being a chef. One can fantasise, right?

But that is just what could have been. Lisa Kudrow addresses these fantasies of mine towards the end of the special when she says the writers ended the show very nicely, and “everyone's lives are very nice. They would have to unravel all those good things for there to be stories. I don’t want anyone’s happy ending unravelled.” This overtly sanitised version of life is exactly what the problem always was with Friends, and continues to be.

A show that has been called out for oversimplifying and homogenising its universe could so easily have changed a lot of that by just throwing these characters into 2021, and giving their world a small dose of realism. It would still be funny and the characters would still be as loveable but they could gave grown in small, little ways. What is worse is this is not a case of laziness or ineptitude on the part of the show creators. It is more a case of wanting to stay on in that bubble of ‘nice-nice’ created primarily for the privileged young white America of the '90s.

Why Friends The Reunion is a missed opportunity at course correction for a homogeneous oversimplified show

Still from Friends: The Reunion

Even with the unscripted chat-show format that the special decided to go with, everything feels constrained by the boundaries of what is nice and what is not. The actors could have dug a little deeper, and spoken a little about their own lives and careers after the show ended. Which fan of the show would not want to know a little more about the people behind their favourite characters? What we have, instead, is the revelation that Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston were crushing on each other at different points during the show. And cynical as it might sound, this is now the major peg for all the PR around the special. After milking the “will they, won’t they” question for 10 seasons, they are doing it again. 

Maybe the actors did not want to talk about themselves. Maybe the whole thing was designed to scratch an itch someone had while the show still has some equity left with its core fan base. But that still does not address any of the problems that the show has been accused of. With a runtime of almost two hours, there was ample space for this to happen without letting it take over the narrative. What we see however, is a clunky attempt to address the ‘inclusivity’ issue. So let us have a couple of people in Africa and a couple of people in India talk about how the show changed their lives. Check. Let us throw in a gay man as well. Check. A lesbian? Check. Let us get BTS to say we are cool and we taught them English! That should take care of the Gen-Zs.

The white gaze in moments like this are so in-your-face that it only serves to remind one of the issues with the show rather than bring back what we loved about it in the first place. And really, there was a lot to love. But this Reunion Special will go down as a missed opportunity.

Friends: The Reunion is streaming on ZEE5.

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