This week, WarnerMedia announced that HBO Max, their proprietary streaming platform, will launch on May 27. However, not unlike Peacock missing the summer Olympics, HBO Max will launch without a signature piece of programming: the Friends reunion. Like so many other projects, the Friends reunion is caught up in the production shutdown, and there is now no known air date. HBO Max will still have the entire run of Friends to stream when it launches next month, but it will launch without a marquee bit of programming. Given Netflix’s crushing dominance of the streaming industry, new platforms need a shiny new object to attract audiences and break through the noise. Disney+, so far, the only real rival to Netflix, did so with The Mandalorian, but lacking a marquee program, Apple TV+ is fading into the background. (Unless Apple decides to make a major move like, say, buying Netflix.)
HBO Max might not have the most auspicious launch, which makes one wonder why they’re not going ahead with a Zoom reunion. It could be endearingly lo-fi! They could even make it part of the All In Challenge! They are donating a six tickets to the All In Challenge, for whenever the reunion special tapes—it will be unscripted, so I guess it’s not really revisiting these characters but just reminiscing about the show in general?—but I do wonder about the optics right now. HBO Max clearly doesn’t want to sacrifice a key piece of original programming, and I get it, the Friends reunion is a blockbuster. But it’s also something that can be adapted. It does not have to be fixed in one format.
This is the age of Zoom reunions, after all, with the casts of shows like My So-Called Life (minus Jared Leto, because OF COURSE he’s the one who is too cool to hang now), The Nanny, Victorious, and High School Musical all reuniting during quarantine. The Oneders virtually got the band back together to honor Adam Schlesinger, who wrote “That Thing You Do!” for the movie, after he passed away from complications of COVID-19. And the Friends have apparently been recording their Zoom meetings as a “mock rehearsal” for the special, which could be aired as a separate special since the “real” reunion is likely to be delayed for months. If we see those recorded Zoom meetings, though, it will probably be after HBO Max launches. It doesn’t seem like WarnerMedia is keen to use that in any way but as leverage.
I understand not wanting to chuck the plans for a multi-million dollar project out the window, but they’re still going to have the live-taped reunion at some point. I’m not suggesting the alleged taped Zoom meetings supplant that. I am suggesting that essentially holding that material hostage is not the best look, especially when so many other casts are reuniting to benefit various good causes. Depending on how much of this Zoom material they have, they could even string it out, with some going up now for charity, and some going up later on HBO Max, filling the void until the real reunion happens, and no, I don’t think it would take the shine off the “real” reunion later. Just because SNL did a Zoom show doesn’t mean people will stop watching the real thing whenever it returns. We all understand these remote programs are alternatives to the entertainment we would otherwise be experiencing right now—they’re placeholders, not replacements. I just don’t think anyone wants to think about the business behind all this stuff right now, people just want to be distracted and entertained. The Friends reuniting in any format would be a welcome distraction for millions.