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The unbearable popularity of nostalgia
Once again "Friends: The Reunion" proves that quality or even relevance doesn't matter in the world of media streaming
Netflix and Disney Plus have enjoyed a kind of monopoly in the digital entertainment services market in the eagerly-awaited film or TV show premiere department, but last week belonged to HBO Max as Friends: The Reunion finally became available for streaming in the US. The one-hour-and-forty-minute special polarized critics and fans alike (the latter on social media more than anywhere else) but evidently succeeded in what it set out to achieve: that is, draw attention to Warner's still-young streaming service.
That is what numbers seem to imply anyway: connected-TV analytics provider TVision reports that on May 27th, the day Friends: The Reunion premiered, an estimated 29% of all US streaming households watched the show. That is huge, especially considering that TVision does not track computers, tablets or smartphones, just TVs. Had those devices been included in this kind of unofficial counting (Warner did not release official numbers), chances are that Friends: The Reunion would have scored a few more percentage points.
The only other HBO Max production that managed to surpass that percentage was none other than Wonder Woman: WW84 during the last week of December 2020, with 32% of all streaming households in the United States. And the only other production that surpassed WW84 was Disney Plus's WandaVision on January 15th with 34% (which is holding this "streaming premiere record" in the US for the time being).
It's fair to say that Friends: The Reunion is a special that's not something truly special: it may currently have an 81% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, but many critics questioned not just its overall quality but also its relevance and even the point Warner was trying to make when producing it (if any). It is a weird mix of live and taped interviews, awkward sideshows, recitals of scenes, idle chat and reminiscing that's definitely not to everyone's liking. What's more, it adds absolutely nothing to the Friends show legacy, giving the overall impression that this is a special produced following a "why not?" kind of executive meeting.
It's worth mentioning, of course, that Friends: The Reunion was supposed to mark the launch of HBO Max in May 2020 and the permanent move of the show from Netflix to Warner's nascent streaming service. COVID-19 made that impossible to happen back then, so the special moved to HBO Max's one-year anniversary. After watching it, though, it's really hard to think of it as fan service and not as a way to exploit the nostalgia millions of viewers in the US still feel for one of the most successful shows in TV history.
The saddest thing of all: it worked. Whether people tuned in because they really liked and still watch Friends or whether they've moved on but were still curious to see what the fuss was about with this special, they did watch it. Nostalgia sells one way or the other. Other TV shows would probably not be able to pull off something like this, as Friends is still considered one-of-a-kind in the world of television productions, but that does not mean that many would not like to try. Just spare us the 20-year anniversary of Lost, please. No way we're going back.