At this point it might be easier to list the classic sitcoms from the last 30 years that aren’t getting a reboot.
From “Roseanne” to “Full House” to “Frasier” to “Will and Grace” to nearly 30 more that have appeared in the past few years, our culture is caught in a fit of nostalgia — a kind of cultural arrested development (also recently rebooted). And it’s unlikely that we will be saved by the bell (also recently rebooted) anytime soon.
The “Friends” reunion, which started streaming May 27 on HBO Max, acknowledges the impetus to turn backward while gently reminding viewers that, after a moment of nostalgia, it is ultimately time to move on.
I remember in the pre-streaming days heading to the library to check out the DVDs to see just what everyone had been talking about. I spent more hours than I care to admit, anxious to see what Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe were up to next.
So when HBO’s special opens with David Schwimmer walking back onto the reconstructed set looking every one of the 17 years older, there is an immediate incongruence. As viewers, we are not back.
For as much demand as there has been for these TV reunions, the “Friends” cast had been famously reluctant. So even though HBO Max reversed a dump truck of cash right into the COVID-19-induced schedule opening, the actors still appear as themselves, not as their characters.
The final product is part documentary, part interview and part 17-year reunion party. And throughout it all, the actors consistently reminisce. Past tense. It was fun. The special never lets you escape the passage of time, even in these mundane exchanges. Matt Leblanc looks around and observes to Jennifer Anniston, “Everything looks so small.”
“That’s impossible,” she replies, “because we haven’t grown.”
And Matt LeBlanc replies, “Speak for yourself.”
The appeal to nostalgia, of course, is nothing new. Styles are repeated, eras are revisited. And there’s good reason that high school reunions remain a rite of middle-age passage. But the television reboot is something, if not entirely new, at least more popular today than ever before.
James Francis, a film studies professor at Texas A&M, wrote for The Conversation that the increasingly fractured television landscape has incentivized an increase in reboots because the shows come with built-in audiences much larger than a new show would find today. Even if these shows can only manage to capture a fraction of its former audience it would be more than enough to please the executives greenlighting them.
But I would suggest that for a generation of viewers, the trend is more than just business-driven. There was once a communal experience around these television sitcoms. With fewer options, everyone was funneled into a shared watching experience. Friends could discuss “Friends.” Today, that community seems, well, lacking.
And there remains a lingering anxiety for those who grew up on these sitcoms that it’s never going to come all together for them like it did for the generation before, and so looking back brings comfort. Ross Douthat, in his book “The Decadent Society, ” discusses the “doom loop” where the success of the past has put us in a malaise. He devotes a chapter to “repetition,” focusing on our stuck pop culture. And while he praises the auteurs of the golden age of television, he notes that it has given way instead to peak TV which is “algorithmically optimized, tending inevitably toward its own forms of repetition, mediocrity.”
Regardless of the cause, nostalgia by nature presses the pause button, which is lovely for a moment, but with the increasing frequency of these reboots, it’s worth asking when we’ll push play again.
There was once a communal experience around these television sitcoms. ... Today, that community seems, well, lacking.
After the cold open of the actors revisiting the old set, the “Friends” reunion special plays the classic “Friends” opening credit sequence. Even during the run of the show the opening credits were an uncomfortable reminder of the passage of time.
The opening sequence would cut in the classic scenes of the cast playing in the water fountain, which was recorded at the same time as the pilot, with scenes from the current season. By the tenth season, the difference had begun to become clear.
The reunion special follows the same pattern, but cut into the opening credits with scenes from the special itself juxtaposing past scenes. Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc leaning back in recliners and then cutting to the episode scene where they had done the same years before. Another feature of the reunion is the cast now doing table reads of scenes from classic episodes, and then quickly cutting between that and the original scene. That was then; this is now.
Near the end of the special, James Corden — who is a serviceable host for the reunion — asks the group if they would ever return to their characters through a reboot or film. Lisa Kudrow answers for the group, “No. At my age, to say ‘floopy?’ Stop. You have to grow up.”
While Kudrow seems to be channeling the sentiments of this particular group of artists, she could just as easily be speaking to all of us.
Yes, I am glad we had a moment to look back and revisit. Nostalgia has a place. Walking through the set one last time, Jennifer Aniston contemplates, “This is it. This is the last time we will all be together answering questions about this show. We won’t be doing this again in 15 years.” It was fun. Now, it’s time to move on.
Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square Magazine.