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Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye to Friends. No, no one has to stop watching reruns when there’s nothing else worth the time—it’s not like you can avoid them, anyway. And no, this isn’t a screed about how it’s a bad show that no one should discover, or rediscover, ever again. This is about the discourse; the constant dredging up of the 1990s Thursday night sitcom every few months to relitigate its merits and shortcomings. Friends is a good show. It does not, however, need to spark this much conversation.
A lot of this is the fault of streaming. When Friends hit Netflix a few years ago, it was uncovered by a whole new generation of viewers—digital natives who turned it into memes and jokes in a way the Gen Xers who grew up with it never did. This was fun for a while, but then the show got so popular that it became a loot box in the streaming wars. Ultimately Netflix lost it to HBO Max, the streaming service that, as of yesterday, is also home to Friends: The Reunion, a 90-minute special devoted to watching the cast relive all the things the internet has been rehashing for like five years now.
Well, most of the things. If there’s one thing Friends: The Reunion is missing, it’s a substantive conversation about Friends. The reunion special was, ostensibly, created to capitalize on the show’s resurgence and lure subscribers to HBO Max, but in addition to memes and BuzzFeed quizzes, the discourse about the show has brought to the fore its shortcomings: its lack of racial diversity, its less-than-stellar treatment of queer issues, its recurring jokes about Monica’s weight. None of those things get addressed here; though there is a somewhat awkward segment full of people all over the world talking about how much they love the show while avoiding the fact that many weren’t represented in it.
Perhaps that’s a lot to ask of a touchy-feely TV special hosted by Everybody’s Biggest Fan James Corden, but if there would be any reason to continue talking about Friends, that would be it. (And truly, there’s room to have a discussion about the fact that Friends was progressive for its time and use it as a signpost for how much things have changed.) Instead, Friends: The Reunion involved a lot of cameos (Lady Gaga singing “Smelly Cat”! Justin Bieber for some reason!) and not-surprising confessions (David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston did crush on each other! People hated Marcel the monkey!), all of which amount to a send-off rather than just a celebration.
That’s the way it should be. Nostalgia has been getting a lot of folks through the Covid-19 lockdowns and subsequent isolation. Watching a show like Friends not only reminds people of a time when luxuriating in coffee shops and sharing beers was possible, it also reminds them that they once watched Friends during less fraught periods. Friends: The Reunion itself was delayed by Covid, and now that it’s here, it serves as a healthy reminder that sometimes it’s OK to honor a beloved thing and move on.
That’s all I’m asking for: moving on. It’s one of the great ironies (there’s a ’90s idea for you) that the streaming wars have triggered both a massive influx of new original content and led scores of people to rewatch the old stuff. The same thing that happened with Friends also happened with The Office, and judging by my Twitter timeline, it is currently happening with The Nanny. That’s great—every generation should be able to rediscover classics like Mad About You, Good Times, or, the original Friends, Living Single. But the issuance of Friends: The Reunion needs to signal the fact that there’s very little, if anything, left to say about this show. Courtney Cox, who played Monica, all but acknowledged this during the reunion. “This will be the last time that we’re ever asked about the show as a group,” she said. “We’re not going to do this again in 15 more years.” And if they’re not going to be talking about it, nobody else should be either.