Main menu


Before you go to 'The Friends Experience,' don't say no one told you it was going to be this way

featured image

Joe Walker (left), Jeremy Palmer and Samantha Petrey, all of Napa, tour “The Friends Experience” in a former H&M store at San Francisco’s Union Square. Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

“Friends” is cringey. The blinding whiteness, the casual sexism, the presumed heterosexuality, the stilted setups to predictable punch lines. And what’s with the Manhattan apartment that’s roomier than many suburban houses?

But “Friends” is also delightful. The iconic lines, moments, set pieces, props. The elastic faces of its six leads, with their DNA-deep understanding of their characters, their playful, inventive line readings, their richly envisioned quirks.

Streaming the sitcom on HBO Max today, almost 20 years after the series finale, supports both those reactions. Attending “The Friends Experience,” which runs through Dec. 4 at 150 Powell St. (where the Union Square H&M used to be), invites questions about what the show represented then and still does now.

A display of actress Jennifer Aniston’s hairstyles as seen in “Friends” is part of “The Friends Experience.” Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

The series is both product and expression of the prosperity and uncritical optimism of the 1990s. It stands in for unsettled young adulthood, when you’re no longer dependent on your parents but haven’t built your own family yet.

For older fans, it’s nostalgic. For younger fans, it’s aspirational: This is what it’s like to be a glamorous young adult in the big city.

“The Friends Experience” doesn’t have a theatrical component, unlike “Stranger Things: The Experience,” or “The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience.” It’s a series of Instagram-ready photo backdrops (with plenty of staffers prepared to snap pics, so you don’t even have to take selfies) broken up with museum-style history exhibits, some interactive, and concluding in a gift shop.

Cadence Goblirsch (left), Leah Shelley, Grace Weinberg, Alexis Anderson, Haley Langridge (face hidden) and Gia Belforte have their photo taken by Abby Sharron — all 13 and all of San Mateo — inside the Central Perk set at “The Friends Experience .” Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

On Thursday, Oct. 13, when I visited, many guests wore “Friends” merch they already owned, including Abby Sharron, who had a “Friends” tee.

“I’ve seen all the episodes twice through,” said the 13-year-old, adding that she likes to watch and discuss the series with her grandfather.

She and six friends from St. Gregory School in San Mateo roamed around on a replica of the set of Central Perk, the coffee shop where Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) works but mostly just chats with the show’s other leads, who also always have plenty of free time.

“You guys pretend to do it,” one of Abby’s group said, as they scrambled around the coffee bar, miming barista and customer moves while parents took photos.

“So, guys, how’s life?” another said, approximating how cool adults in the series or in real life might talk to each other.

“It’s weird,” parent chaperone Jessica Langridge said of the next generation’s fondness for the series. “This was my show when I was poor in college.”

Cadence Goblirsch (left), Leah Shelley, Grace Weinberg, Alexis Anderson, Haley Langridge and Gia Belforte have their photo taken by Abby Sharron — all 13 and all of San Mateo — inside the Central Perk set at “The Friends Experience.” Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

For me as a preteen, the show wasn’t just a fantasy of adulthood. To some extent, it was my adult in the room. I had just moved from my native Michigan to suburban Nashville, away from my caretaker grandma. For the first time, I was in charge of my little brother in the hours between school and when my mom got home from work. I’d make a bowl of chocolate chips and dry Cheerios and use reruns of “The Simpsons,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” as background noise and shadow adults between 5 pm and 7 pm, scribbling homework answers during commercial breaks. Even then, I knew: I was a Monica — earnest, motivated and congenitally uncool.

Revisiting episodes now, I realize I wasn’t just dreaming up some vague New York life. What specifically comforted me was that even someone as unlikable Monica could have friends. Maybe, in my new home, I could, too.

The vision of friendship and character the show proffers is one that’s very amenable and accessible to a still-maturing mind. A person is a long list of very particular quirks, and friendship is learning all those fun facts about each other, in excruciating and articulate detail, and still sticking around.

Rajvi Shah of Alamo snaps photos of Mai Huynh of Denver, posing in the clothes of “Friends” character Joey Tribbiani at “The Friends Experience.” Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

In “The Friends Experience,” this notion of trivia’s paradoxical importance blooms fully. A giant, complicated, interweaving timeline documenting all the leads’ romantic relationships across 10 seasons. An interactive trivia game recalling the trivia game in S4E12. An illuminating video from series costume designer Debra McGuire explains each character’s color palette and style. Now that you know McGuire was drawing on her dad’s 1940s taste for Chandler (Matthew Perry), his above-it-all sarcasm looks more like part of a broader image strategy, as if he’s too cool for the ’90s.

And yet many of the exhibits and scenes fall embarrassingly short. Before you go inside, you have to watch a minutes-long commercial about what you’re about to see. Then, in the first room, a backdrop with the fountain from the opening sequence has about as much aesthetic appeal as church-basement theater. (Using shiny synthetic tubing in place of water just looks pathetic.)

Gabriel Cevallos (left), Jeremy Palmer, Joe Walker and Samantha Petrey, all of Napa, at “The Friends Experience.” Photo: Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Later, as you sit on a La-Z-Boy in the “boys’ apartment” inside a building that was very clearly once a store, complete with escalators, you might have existential questions: Why, exactly, do you need a photo of yourself not even in a real scuzzy, scruffy apartment, but in an even cheaper facsimile thereof, with clumsily applied paint to make it look scuzzier and scruffier? What does it say about the world that this experience exists, and that you’re inside it?

Clearly, though, “Friends” fans do still exist, and they hunger to go beyond merely streaming the series in the privacy of their homes.

Stacy Moscatelli, co-president and chief strategy officer of Superfly X, which created the experience alongside Warner Bros. Themed Entertainment and Warner Bros. Television Group, said guests have made more than 100 marriage proposals in the experience’s nine previous tour locations. (Superfly X is aa division of Superfly, a producer of Clusterfest, which in 2019 included re-creations of sets from “Seinfeld” and “The Office.”)

“They want to come inside and have kind of one of their most important days of our lives happen on the set of ‘Friends,’ ” she said.

Moscatelli can only theorize about why: “Sometimes couples have this relationship where they watch the show together, or they feel like they’re Ross and Rachel, and it took them a while to get together.”

“The Friends Experience”: Through Dec. 4. $33.50. 15o Powell St., SF

  • Lily Janiak
    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: Twitter: @LilyJaniak