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Friends reunion drags in spots, but it's mostly a poignant homecoming

Review: The special is longer than it needs to be. But hard-core fans of the sitcom will find lots to love about hanging out with these pals again.

Matt LeBlanc hugs Courtney Cox

Matt LeBlanc hugs Courteney Cox as David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow look on during Friends: The Reunion.

HBO Max

When Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc plop down in side-by-side leather lounge chairs during Friends: The Reunion, it is, for a moment, as if no time has passed since their characters reclined in front of their cherished television all those years ago. 

Yet the actors have lived lifetimes since Chandler Bing and Joey Tribbiani shared a New York bachelor pad on the long-running NBC comedy. And in the case of the 51-year-old Perry, who's battled addiction and, more recently, spent three months in the hospital following gastrointestinal surgery, life hasn't always been funny.  

Joey and Chandler, then and now. 

GIF by Leslie Katz/CNET

"Aww, Matty, it's good to see you, man," Perry tells the affable LeBlanc, now a 53-year-old teddy bear of a guy who delivers lingering hugs to his former cast mates

There's a genuine warmth to the exchange between the two actors, and as an old episode flashes back to them in their 20s, leaning back in barcaloungers in the same spot, it's hard not to feel melancholy. Now they're two middle-aged guys with gray hair and more lived experience, together again and looking back. It's a simple moment, tinged with a poignancy that permeates the whole special. 

The highly anticipated reunion, streaming now on HBO Max, reunites the six lead actors on the show's original soundstage at the Warner Bros. Studio lot in Burbank, California. It's the first time LeBlanc, Perry, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer have been together in the same room since the finale aired in 2004. 

One of the highest-rated television shows of all times, Friends ran for 10 seasons, averaged 25 million viewers a week and rocketed all six actors to international stardom. When the series finale aired in May 2004, more than 52 million viewers tuned in, and Netflix brought it to a whole new audience.

For the unscripted reunion, the actors arrive one by one on Stage 24, so we have time to take in each one's emotional reaction to being back on the iconic set, rebuilt exactly the way it used to be. Aniston asks where the tissues are. "I got chills," LeBlanc says, standing in the old apartment he and Perry's character shared. 

There are laughs, too, as the actors reminisce and effortlessly slip back into character sitting around a table reading classic old scripts (Kudrow's return to Phoebe Buffay's voice and gestures is a particular delight). And there are tears. The show is "about that time in your life when your friends are your family," says David Crane, one of the executive producers of both Friends and the reunion special. It's clear the actors thought of each other that way, brought even closer by their shared experience as young actors navigating newfound mega-fame. 

The six graced countless magazine covers, including Rolling Stone, and got mobbed by screaming fans wherever they went. Tabloids followed their personal lives with rabid fascination, with helicopters even hovering over their houses, trying to grab footage.  

"No one was going through what we were going through, except the other five," Schwimmer says as the six talk on set in the meticulously re-created living room of Monica Geller and Rachel Green's apartment. Added Aniston, who remains a tabloid obsession, "It kind of imprinted in our neural pathways ... 'we are actually family.'"  

The special is at its best in these genuine, intimate moments, like when Perry reveals the pressure he felt performing in front of a live studio audience. 

"I felt like I was going to die if they didn't laugh, and it's not healthy for sure, but I would sometimes say a line and they wouldn't laugh and I would sweat and like, go into convulsions if I didn't get the laugh I was supposed to get," he reveals to his cast mates, who appear to be learning about his anxiety for the first time. 

friends

Longtime friends: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc reminisce in front of the fountain where the show's opening credits were filmed. 

HBO Max

At an hour and 45 minutes, the reunion could've used more revelations about the cast then and now, and far less filler. When the cast members aren't chatting on set, James Corden, host of The Late, Late Show, is interviewing them outside in front of a live, socially distanced audience and the famous fountain where the opening credits were shot. But he keeps it all breezy, avoiding substantive questions about professional disappointments, divorces, health struggles and aging in Hollywood. 

The six leading cast members of Friends have reunited on HBO Max. 

NBC

A montage of fans from around the world talking about what Friends meant to them feels ponderous. And a segment where notable guests walk the runway in fashions from the sitcom could've used a nip and tuck.  

Still, hard-core Friends fans will probably find lots to love here. Cameos include Maggie Wheeler, back to reprise the grating laugh that characterized her character Janice, Chandler's onetime girlfriend. Reese Witherspoon, who played Rachel's sister Jill, shows up, as does James Michael Tyler, who played Rachel-loving Central Perk employee Gunther. Even grumpy neighbor Mr. Heckles, played by Larry Hankin, pops by. Oh, did I mention Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and BTS also make appearances? 

"Friends really had a big hand in teaching me English," a member of the insanely popular Korean boy band says.  

Outtakes bring a smile ("Pivot! Pivot! Pivot!": turns out the famous scene of Ross, Rachel and Chandler trying to get a sofa up the stairs led them to uncontrollable laughter between takes). Endearing behind-the-scenes footage shows them affectionately pranking and hugging one another. The revelation about two cast members' feelings for each other already has people buzzing.

But even those who can't recount how Monica proposed to Chandler or why Ross and Rachel WERE ON A BREAK will be able to relate to the sometimes overwhelming experience at the heart of the reunion: what it's like returning to pivotal points in our past. 

"So no one told you life was gonna be this way," a line from the show's theme song goes. Someone might have told us time would go by quickly, but how has it been a quarter century since this comedy first aired? As the memories wash over the cast, many viewers may see themselves, and bits of their own lives, in these old friends.