For 17 long years, television’s six closest “Friends” and their die-hard fans around the world were on a break.
That ended Thursday, when the sitcom’s six cast members returned for a one-off special — a reunion millions of viewers had been feverishly demanding ever since the group turned off the lights and strolled out of their preposterously spacious Manhattan apartment for the last time. But “Friends” had never really gone away. All one needs to do to understand the staggering global impact the show has had over the past three decades is to check in with its legion of obsessed, line-quoting fanatics. And OH. MY. GOD. Could there be any more of them?
“It became a show of the world — it wasn’t just a little TV pilot set in New York,” says Todd Stevens, a producer on “Friends” throughout its 10-year run, as he reflects on the moment those involved in the show realized they were making a global juggernaut. “It did seem (to us) like the strike of lighting that was ‘Friends’ could be seen further than just the United States,” he says. “It got out of the neighborhood.” He may be underplaying it. “Friends” was the first and only sitcom to truly, genuinely take over the world — and the world isn’t ready to let it go yet.
“I doubt we’ll ever see a sitcom appeal in the way ‘Friends’ did and still does,” says Pete Allison, whose podcast “Friends with Friends” delves deep into each of the show’s 236 episodes. “It’s far more embedded in our lives than most popular culture.” Fake Central Perks still pop up in cities on every continent; online communities analyze every episodec, scene and joke; the show has become comfort viewing for a new generation through streaming services like Netflix; and all over the globe, there are people who learned to speak English by watching Ross, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, Chandler and Monica. For those uberfans, this week’s reunion was an emotional landmark. “I don’t cry very often, but my eyes were full with tears,” says Elin Nikolov, a 35-year-old from Bulgaria who channeled his love of the show into his work, by setting up a replica Central Perk cafe in the city of Plovdiv. But it was far from the end. “I still watch it every day,” Nikolov says. “They’re my friends. Many ‘Friends’ fans will say that, but it’s the truth, and it’s great to see them every night and every day.”