I receive a Friends subscription box in the mail 4 times a year. To say I’m a fan isn’t exactly enough. The show premiered on Sept 22, 1994, at the exact right time in my life. I was starting college that year, thus beginning my journey to adulthood. It allowed me big fancy dreams of living in an apartment right across the hall from a couple of my best friends who would always be around to hang and chat and share meals and life experiences. My love of the show was so real that when the series ended, my mother actually called me to check in on my emotional state. She was right to do so. I was a sobbing mess.
For me the show had all of the dry humor, pseudo life lessons, and engaging storylines that managed to keep my attention for 10 years. As well as the 17 years after that, with my random rewatches, or when I make my family watch all of the Thanksgiving episodes on Thanksgiving Day.
When it was announced that the Friends reunion was for real, finally, yes it’s true, we’re serious this time, happening, I just kind of felt meh about it. It’s been 17 years since the show’s series finale aired. I felt like there isn’t really anything new you all can tell me about the show. I follow these folks on IG, I know what they look like now. I’m not getting HBOMax specifically for this. But then I realized that our cable package actually included HBOMax, and I didn’t have to do anything special.
So I watched the Reunion.
The reunion obviously focused on our six main characters and the actors who played them. A lot of “remember when”, table reads, old clips, and interviews. And not just interviews with cast and show creators, but randos like David Beckham, Justin Beiber, and the K Pop boy band BTS. There were also testimonies from people all around the world, Ghana included, about how important the 90s TV cult classic was to them. As this goes on, I can’t help but notice there are two people I still haven’t seen come across my screen. I kept waiting for them to appear. But as the episode counter ticked down, it became glaringly obvious that they weren’t gonna show. They weren’t even mentioned. Where were Aisha Tyler and Gabrielle Union?
The only thing the beloved TV show was always missing for me was someone who looked like me. Someone, I could see myself reflected in. Sure there were Black guests that appeared on episodes few and far between. A flight attendant, a sassy co-worker (shoutout Jennifer Lewis), Chandler’s boss, a singing neighbor, and so on. But it wasn’t until March 15, 2001, in season 7, when a woman, with a name, and several pages of dialogue, appeared on screen in “The One With The Cheap Wedding Dress”. It was the B storyline, where Joey and Ross end up meeting and asking out the same young woman, on the day she moves into the neighborhood. That young woman, Kristen, is played by Gabrielle Union. I could finally see myself in the circle of “friends”. Being only in one episode, she doesn’t really count as a major character. But it was major for me and I can only imagine the same for any other Black women who had been dutifully sitting in front of their TV on Thursday nights for 7 seasons.
So let’s talk about the first and only Black Friend, Aisha Tyler.
Prior to this appearance, Tyler was best known as a comedian and the host of the commentary show Talk Soup. Tyler’s episode, “The One With The Soap Opera Party”, originally aired on April 24, 2003. Tyler plays Charlie Wheeler, a Paleontology Professor who is a colleague of Ross’. During her 9 episode story arc, Charlie starts dating Joey and has to deal with jealousy from Rachel, who has just decided that she wants to date Joey. During a working vacation in Jamaica, Charlie realizes that she has more in common with Ross, and makes the switch. After she and Ross date awhile, Ross encounters Charlie’s jealous ex boyfriend, hilariously played by Greg Kinner, when he needs to apply for a grant. Charlie ends up back with her ex, revoking her invitation to Central Perk.
The topic of Friends So White is not a new revelation. When we get down to it, it’s a white-washed Living Single. But in the year of our Lord and Savoir 2021, how can the producers miss the perfect opportunity to address the white elephant in the room? This reunion show made for an ideal platform to acknowledge the significant contribution that Tyler and Union made to that show. It could have been squeezed in with all that talk of Friends being aired and loved all over the world. Not only were they among the first Black characters to have storylines on the show, but they were also among some of the few interracial relationships we got to see play out on prime-time network television, where race wasn’t the storyline.
Including Union and Tyler is what would have made this reunion worthwhile for me. Excluding them from the celebration just amplifies the narrative that the franchise couldn’t care less about people that don’t look like them. I find real comfort and joy in the fact that we no longer have to wait for permission to tell our own stories. Because the existing gatekeepers aren’t trying to do it.
I will keep my fond memories of Friends and the humor and comfort it provided and continues to provide to me. But know that I’m not blind to their continued willful denial of entire cultures that exist in the world, especially in New York City. Do better.
So, in conclusion, for the brown and crowned, Gabrielle and Aisha, if you ladies would like to guest on my podcast so I can personally thank you for being my mirror in my favorite sitcom at the time, gimme a holla.
And yes, Ross and Rachel were on a break.
May 31, 2021
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is a Pittsburgh based hub for inspiration, pop culture, and general geekdom. She is also the former producer of Pittsburgh’s 48 Hour Film Project and host of several entertainment-centered podcasts.