One of the first times I left my house during quarantine last year was a rare drive to the office to record a virtual panel. But this one was extra special: a reunion of the cast of “Community,” along with creator Dan Harmon. I knew the show’s fans were eager to see the gang from Greendale — including Donald Glover, who never does these things anymore — table-read an episode and answer questions about the show’s legacy (and if the long-rumored movie would ever happen). And I didn’t want to let my janky internet connection interrupt something that so many people, stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic, wanted to see.
It was a treat, and stirred the internet as we had hoped. It also came at the start of a yearlong nostalgia binge, as the casts and producers of shows both big and obscure came together, mostly over Zoom, to reminisce and give all of us a little much-needed pick-me-up. Perhaps the most ambitious was “Stars in the House,” a daily show from Sirius XM host Seth Rudetsky and his husband, James Wesley, which has raised around $1 million for The Actors Fund and other charities through cast reunions of “Frasier,” “Thirtysomething,” “Scandal,” “Family Ties,” “L.A. Law,” “Melrose Place,” “Desperate Housewives” and countless films and Broadway shows.
As our COVID year wore on, the reunions got more sophisticated — and polished. HBO Max, in particular, has three in the running for Emmy variety special (pre-recorded) consideration: “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion” and the long-delayed but finally here “Friends: The Reunion.”
“The West Wing” special included a theatrical stage reading of the Season 3 episode “Hartsfield’s Landing,” meant to raise awareness of the nonprofit organization When We All Vote, which is co-chaired by Michelle Obama. The “Fresh Prince” reunion was joyful, but also had a touching tribute to late co-star James Avery. And it featured what may be the most stunning moment from any of these reunions — a brutally honest conversation between Will Smith and Janet Hubert, the actor who was fired from the show after originating the role of Aunt Viv.
By the time “Friends: The Reunion” came last month, executive producer Ben Winston knew the reunion space had been saturated — and that he had to deliver something special. “I thought they were all really different and really original,” he tells me. “I saw the ‘West Wing’ one and I saw the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ one, and if anything, I just felt pressure because I knew that we were going after them and they’d set such a high bar. But I think the cast and the creators and myself, we were like, ‘We’re going to do it when the time’s right.’”
Of course, there’s the need in this crowded marketplace to get attention — “and when you bring back a brand and a show that people loved at a simpler time in their lives, it’s easier to create noise about it,” Winston says. But he also notes that reunions like “Friends,” especially over the past year, take us “back to a time in our lives that we all loved. A show where people talk to each other, where people weren’t buried in their cellphones.”
Now, we’ll see if Emmy voters are a wistful bunch.