The headlines came fast and furious last month: More than a decade after Friends had ended its 10-season run, NBC was planning a reunion. And it was going to be two hours long!
But once you read a little more closely, the truth became apparent. This was not the Friends reunion fans had been waiting for, but rather one segment in a larger special dedicated to legendary TV director James Burrows, who helmed several episodes of Friends along with shows like Cheers, Taxi, and Will & Grace. NBC, which has struggled in recent years to keep up anything resembling its former sitcom dominance, is billing the event as a much-needed return to “Must See TV.”
The bad news kept coming once we learned that only five of the six cast members would even be making it to the so-called reunion. Evidently, Matthew Perry couldn’t be pulled away from rehearsals for his playwriting debut in London to make the trip to L.A. to honor the man who helped launch his career.
As The Daily Beast’s Nico Hines put it in his review, Perry’s The End of Longing is a “drug-taking, foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, X-rated version of one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history.” Speaking on pre-taped video from London, Perry managed to work in a plug for his new play as he introduced “my friends who just happen to be the cast of Friends.”
“This is very exciting seeing you all together,” moderator Andy Cohen said when the Friends portion of the Burrows tribute finally began about 90 minutes into the two-hour show. Of course, the elephant in the room was the fact that they were not all together. “Everyone’s wanted a Friends reunion for so long,” Cohen continued before Matt LeBlanc cut him off, pointing out that one important cast member was missing.
From the moment Perry let it be known that he would not be participating in the event, all hopes of a true Friends reunion went out the window. But while the presence of the most sarcastic Friend, the character who helped coin the most ’90s saying imaginable—“Could you be any more [blank]?”—would have legitimized the proceedings, it still would not have delivered fans what they were looking for.
Instead of catching up with the characters of Friends, Sunday night’s special simply highlighted the mostly awkward interactions of five actors who have seen their careers go in markedly different directions in the 12 years since the show ended its 10-season run.
“We really wanted to connect,” Lisa Kudrow said of the “unspoken” need for the cast to become friends in real life. “We instinctively felt like we needed to be friends, we needed to get along, we needed to connect,” she said, thanking Burrows for giving them his dressing room to play poker in on the set between takes.
Elsewhere during the “reunion,” much was made of an alleged contract that they had to sign saying they wouldn’t sleep together, but after a cliffhanger commercial break, they quickly threw cold water on that rumor. So if you were hoping for any bombshell behind-the-scenes revelations, well, you came up empty-handed.
According to Jennifer Aniston, they would also spend time together outside of work hours, hanging out at each other’s houses and acting as emotional support. She spoke for the group when she called Friends the “best 10 years of our acting careers.” But in retrospect that may be more true for some of the cast members than it is for others.
Following the Friends finale, Aniston quickly became the biggest star of the group, thanks more to her tabloid-fueled relationship with Brad Pitt than for the hit-or-miss movie roles she landed. Last year, she failed to nab an Oscar nomination for her impressive performance in Cake, a movie that was intended to prove her worth as a serious actress but may have ended up being too brutally depressing for voters.
Conversely, Matt LeBlanc probably got off to the worst start of anyone after Friends, reprising his role in the disappointing and short-lived Joey. But more recently, he has seen renewed sitcom success, earning four Emmy nominations and one Golden Globe win for playing an unflattering version of himself on Showtime’s Episodes.
Courteney Cox was the most established member of the cast when Friends began. In the years after it ended, she attempted to repeat the familiar formula on Cougar Town. But that drunken cult hit, always on the verge of cancellation, never quite managed to capture the zeitgeist.
Perhaps the most respected of the bunch within the comedy community is Kudrow, who has become something of a television innovator with both The Comeback on HBO and Web Therapy on Showtime. Last year, she delivered some impressive voice work as an owl who just emerged from a coma on Bojack Horseman.
And then there is David Schwimmer, who spent most of the past decade as the voice of a nervous giraffe in the Madagascar movies. Now, all of a sudden, he is back in the spotlight with his role as Robert Kardashian on FX’s popular miniseries American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. You can’t imagine anyone saying the word “Juice” with more sincere compassion.
These are five actors who have seen their careers go in wildly different directions since they shared the screen week after week on Friends. Reuniting them as themselves and not as the characters we knew and loved only brought to light the sad reality that, by this point, they’re not really friends anymore.