Why the Friends Reunion Reminded Me that We are All Going to Die
As I turn thirty, the much-anticipated Friends reunion has forced me to question everything.
At one point during the Friends reunion, it felt as though the filmmakers were openly prescribing the series as an antidote for depression, grief and loneliness. While Friends will not, in fact, cure mental illness, what it has done is provide a reliable emotional comfort blanket for at least three generations, including me.
After seventeen years of not-waiting for a sequel (or particularly caring if there ever was one) I watched the reunion last night, alongside my mum, and felt gripped by the warm hand of nostalgia. We both laughed and cried throughout the cosy (and sometimes bizarre) 90 minute documentary-archive-chat-show medley thing and bonded as we reminisced about our favourite episodes and moments. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how much the reunion would remind me that we are all going to die.
Of course, the visible effects of ageing on every cast member (aside from Mr Heckles, who appears to be exactly the same age - somewhere between 55 and 85) is the most obvious personal affront of the inevitability of our bodies’ biological degradation. But it felt much more than that.
The bittersweet revelation that real life Ross and Rachel really did fancy each other, but were never to be, reminded me that we do in fact only get one shot at life, and love. As Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer’s expressions projected a deep sense of regret across the Central Perk sofa to each other, a profound sense of existential awareness glazed over me and I sat there thinking, secretly hoping… maybe it isn’t too late for them.
Even though we all know it is.
It made me question my own life decisions. What things do I know I want but am not fully committing to? What might I regret in seventeen years’ time?
Revisiting numerous clips from the show exemplified the fact that our twenties are heralded as the ‘best time of our lives’ and, as a person who is currently living in the final week of her twenties, it couldn’t have come at a more powerful time.
Just like ‘The one where they all turn thirty’, my transition into a new decade has fermented mixed feelings within me. While I haven’t yet pleaded with God not to reach the big 3–0, like Joey (not yet, anyway), I did buy my first car last week, just like Ross. I have also been anxiously musing about my fertility and who I want to have kids with, like Rachel, and I’m half-expecting (hoping) to turn up to my birthday party too drunk to stand, like Monica.
We are told by society that turning thirty is bound to be a slightly depressing occasion, masked with balloons, cocktails and friends who also feel their youth is gradually slipping away. In the past week I have impulse invested in anti-aging SPF, dyed my hair blue and started cold water swimming.
But I’m okay about turning thirty, I promise…
When Friends ended in 2004, I was a sweet thirteen-year-old who owned all the episodes on VHS tape and used the series as a kind of pacifier to the stresses of teenage life and its accompanying angst.
Friends was, and still is, soothing to my soul; a familiar place to which I am guaranteed to feel more cheerful after visiting. Throughout my teens and early twenties I would often watch episodes before bed as a way of winding down; a psychological sedation into a peaceful slumber, much like a really good hug. And since hugs are a relatively novel thing these days, the Friends reunion was a warm and welcome — albeit existentially awakening — experience that I was glad to feel globally collectively part of.
For tweens like me, the original series felt as educational as it did entertaining; informing me about everything from erogenous zones and divorce to surrogacy and transgender parenting. While some of its scripting and stereotyping may be considered distasteful or even offensive today — storylines involving lesbians, fertility treatment and one night stands must have felt pretty liberal and groundbreaking at the time. So, while it may have aged more like a flat prosecco than a fine red, the show has undoubtedly shaped many of our lives in small ways, guiding and perhaps predicting my future years as I attempt to unapologetically Janice-laugh into my early thirties.
Being watched 100 billion times by people in over 200 countries means that Friends has been intricately braided into the fabric of Western society as effectively as something like wifi (which did not exist, by the way, for the majority of the time Friends was on air).
A cultural phenomenon it certainly is. Indeed, barely a month goes by without someone I know saying, “It’s like that time in Friends when…[insert anecdote]”or quoting a classic line. It’s practically created it’s own language and we find ourselves leaning on particular narratives as shortcuts for expressing ourselves, not dissimilar to the way we do with Shakespeare’s work.
How you doin’? We were on a break! They don’t know that we know they know we know. Pivot! Unagi. Transponster. Crap bag. Smelly cat.
Could it be any more quotable?
But what nobody expected was that younger generations would have taken to Friends as much as they did too. It remains one of the most popular and most-streamed shows on Netflix, particularly amongst this generation of 20-year-olds and younger.
This was something uncomfortably personified in the irrelevant cameo of Justin Bieber in Ross’ ‘Spudnik’ outfit during the reunion show. Justin was just 6 months old when the show first aired, but he must be a pretty big fan now.
Perhaps counterintuitively, shoehorning in celebrities who’s publicists had clearly seen an opportunity for exposure alongside a cohort of international treasures, made the cast seem even older.
Watching Lady Gaga try to flatter Lisa Kudrow - but inevitably overshadow her by being twenty years younger and with a better singing voice - felt a bit like your ex-husband’s new girlfriend turning up at a family event and looking after your kids. Even if she’s the nicest person in the world, it still feels like a small, personal betrayal.
Cara Delevingne’s unexplained arrival instructed us that there was a new Jennifer Aniston or Courtney Cox on the block and Kit Harington was a direct comparison to Matt Le Blanc or David Schwimmer. There will always be a newer, younger, shinier you, seemed to be the message.
Ultimately, it perpetuated something that we’ve always known — the cycle of showbiz relies on youth and will always keep turning, regardless of how well-loved or successful you have been. Or how much botox you’ve had.
While Friends is perhaps the most timeless of modern TV shows — engaging astonishing numbers of audience for three decades — the reunion reminded us that ageing is a shared experience that affects even the rich, famous and unimaginably successful. And, whether we have cosmetic surgery or not, we all do it at the same pace. A lot or a little can happen in seventeen years, and it’s largely up to you which.
Will the show be remembered in 50 or 100 years’ time? It’s hard to say, but the sobering reality is that not many of us will be here to find out.
But, as per the wise words inscribed on Rachel Green’s 30th birthday card, let’s just remember that — for now at least — it is:
“Better to be over the hill than buried under it.”