by Álvaro André Zeini Cruz
Over the years, Friends has been a recurring example in my classes, either to discuss the direction in the multi-camera system or the scenography in the sitcom. This was because of the appeal and relevance of the show in the television genre, but mostly because there was a pilaster in the middle of the way. Yes, there was. Then they took it out. Now, they replaced the decorative pillar (because if they removed it once, it is because it did not support anything) in the reconstitution of the set made for the reunion of the protagonists. This reappearance is noticed by David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow in the first few minutes of Friends Reunion, when they remember that the architectural structure used to disrupt the view of the cameras in front of the cast on the scene. The fact is that the wooden column in the foreground was a mistake for this type of scenography since it inadequately veiled the actors and sometimes produced claustrophobic over framing, little usual to the casual space that the sitcom demands. Whether by choice or lapse, the return of the pilaster symbolizes something that is at the centre of the special produced by HBO: the reconstitutions will always be something else.
This spatial “inaccuracy” – which chooses to capture and reproduce the initial scenography (i.e., of the first season) – disregards the absence of the column over the other nine seasons; consequently, it ignores the solution of a problem discovered in the day-to-day recording. It, therefore, makes an instant record, which goes against the speech of the actors. Instead, they recall and establish a tension, which is the most vital feature in this reunion: if restoring a space is challenging, it is impossible to reconstitute time. So, forget the moment talk show hosted by James Corden and the testimonies of fans about the importance of Friends in their lives; what matters here are the bodies and voices of these six actors – all now in their fifties – who remember a series about young adults in New York.
In this sense, the return to Central Perk and the iconic apartment yields good moments, explaining this paradox of “be and not to be”. However, the summit of this contradiction dispenses with the hard walls and the scenographic furniture: it takes place when the cast, seated around a table (placed in the studio but outside the limits of the scenario), makes an interpreted reading of striking scenes. These are moments when a circular travelling acts spatially, interconnecting the actors as it reveals faces and expressions underlined by the shallow space. The montage alternates sets and close shots with little depth of field while acting at a more complex temporal intersection, which intersperses the recent rehearsal with the scenes that aired. The actors seek the motivation and tone printed in the first scenes, but in addition to not reconstituting themselves in space-time, the reenactments are complemented by the originals (therefore, set in contrast). Thus, Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe emerge in duplicity by the images and sounds of past and now, in which they assume marked faces (between well-accepted wrinkles and aesthetic procedures), grey hair, deeper or nasal voices. But (again) they are, and they are not, because they resurface from the actors to put themselves no more on them, but on the side, stressing this double existence detached by the years.
At the end of the special episode, when Kudrow uses her age to justify that it wouldn’t make sense to relive Phoebe as a crazy “old” lady, she’s got the point there. Not because it’s impossible to have a 50-year-old character like Phoebe – Lily Tomlim does wonderfully a septuagenarian Phoebe in Grace & Frankie, by the same Marta Kauffman from Friends -, but because of what the series was and is: a portrait of the passing of 20 to 30. In this sense, Friends is a pretty different case from his contemporary Will & Grace, who has had a recent revival: the sitcom of David Kohan and Max Mutchnick was based on the situation of a gay man living in a kind of marriage to his hetero woman best friend; a conflict that can be reallocated to the current time of the actors/characters. In Friends, being a young adult in New York at the end of the millennium is the situation of comedy itself; therefore, a revival would only make sense if it bypassed the mere nostalgic pastiche and manoeuvred nostalgia in favour of an affectionate parody, which demonstrates that young adults also age. This is the pillar of Friends Reunion; the rest is decoration and perfumery.
Showing on HBO Max.
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