In one sentence, “Friends” is “about that time in your life when your friends are your family,” David Crane, co-creator and executive producer of the show, shared in the HBO Max reunion special that premiered on May 27. It was his and fellow co-creator Marta Kauffman’s early adulthoods in New York City that originally inspired the hit sitcom. While Kauffman and Crane believed in their story, they and the cast alike were not ready for the show to continue for ten seasons and have a lasting legacy 17 years later.
The reunion special, while not an actual episode as many fans were anticipating, was just as the title promises: a reunion of friends. If you weren’t sure that these co-stars were actually friends before the special, there will be no doubt in your mind after watching that the bond their characters shared wasn’t just on television.
Led by interviewer James Corden, the six main stars of the show congregate together as a group for only the second time since the series ended in 2004. The set is reassembled, old scripts are read and tears are shed as the group looks back on the show that both made their careers and shaped a decade of their personal lives. This cast, like the characters they played, truly became a family. Being in “Friends” was the time in their lives when their friends were their family.
It is this notion of found family that defined the genre of American sitcoms in the early 2000s. There was a shift in focus from family to young adults living together in an unrealistically large apartment and it is all thanks to the success of “Friends.”
Unlike other popular sitcoms at the time, “Friends” had a truly ensemble cast in which no one character was more important than another. Instead of being a show about a character with friends who get into farcical scenarios, the show was truly about the group as a whole.
Other sitcoms of this era such as “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Full House” focused on family dynamics, as did many sitcoms that came before them, while “Friends” started a trend of ensemble casts that consisted of friends instead of families. This change both reflected a changing culture and shaped the expectations of many teens and young adults growing up with shows like “Friends.” Even popular sitcoms that came after it and focused on family or work relationships kept the format of a true ensemble cast, shows like “Modern Family” and “The Office” being two extremely popular examples of shows in which the entire cast are responsible for the success of the story.
Some of the most popular sitcoms from the past two decades have obvious roots in the success of “Friends.” “How I Met Your Mother,” “New Girl” and “The Big Bang Theory” all follow a group of close friends in their twenties sharing an apartment while tackling the challenges of dating and working as a young adult. “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory” both gained cult followings and each show was on the air for at least nine seasons, “How I Met Your Mother” in particular closely mirrors the run of “Friends,” with a strong emphasis on close knit friendships that resemble family.
Like “Friends,” the success of these shows was critical as well as commercial. Over the course of nine seasons, “How I Met Your Mother” was nominated for 30 Emmy awards, ten of which it won. Similarly, “The Big Bang Theory” was nominated for several Emmy and Golden Globe awards, and “New Girl,” was nominated for five Emmy and five Golden Globe awards during its seven season run. “Friends” itself was nominated for a total of 62 Emmys, 6 of which it won, and ten Golden Globe nominations over the course of ten seasons. The recognition and success that “Friends” received led to the critical recognition of shows that were inspired by it.
The impact of “Friends” is clear in these popular shows, however, the demand for a reunion itself proves just how large of an impact the show has had on popular culture. The reunion received over one million views on HBO Max in the first seven hours of airing, having been a greatly anticipated special after HBO bought the streaming rights to the original series. The reunion has also driven fans to revisit the original series due to the nostalgic nature of the special. For many viewers, these characters were not just a source of entertainment, but their friends.
At the end of the day, the special is fan service, but it is also a documentation of one of the most popular and influential shows of its time period. Looking past the more commercial aspects of the special, it is at its core a wonderfully nostalgic look back at a show that captured the essence of 90s culture and what it means to be a young adult.
“Friends: The Reunion” is available to stream exclusively on HBO Max.
By Emily Frantz