(This story contains spoilers about “Friends: The Reunion,” streaming now on HBO Max.)

Maybe it’s because we’re finally starting to reunite with loved ones after emerging on the other side of a catastrophic global pandemic, but it’s hard not to get emotional at the beginning of the “Friends” reunion.

The six stars — Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer — individually enter the soundstage, re-created to look exactly like the set of the iconic NBC sitcom that aired from 1994 through 2004. But as they take in the surroundings in wonder, their eyes really light up when they see each other. A screen at the beginning of the nearly two-hour “Friends: The Reunion” special informs the audience that since the series finale (watched by 52 million people, one of the most-viewed TV finales ever), the six cast members have only been in a room together once before this reunion.

“Oh!” Kudrow exclaims when she sees Schwimmer, wrapping him in a big hug. “This is all I care about.” Aniston and Cox instantly start to cry. LeBlanc and Perry can’t stop grinning, and quickly fall into Joey and Chandler’s old Barcaloungers.

The special itself has been hyped to the point of absurdity: In the 17 years since show went off the air, the stars have been bombarded with questions about whether they would ever reunite. When whispers about the reunion started in late 2019, people of the Internet lost their minds — and even more so when the reports were confirmed last February, with rumors that the cast would be paid somewhere around $2 million each. While it was originally supposed to air last spring to promote the launch of HBO Max (which wrested the “Friends” streaming rights from Netflix), it was delayed because of the pandemic.

So, the natural question: Was it worth the hype? The answer: It truly does not matter. With nostalgia as one of our richest cultural resources, the quality of the content is much less important than the fact that it exists at all.

Fans will be thrilled to see the gang together again, chatting casually as they reminisce about their 10-season journey. Perry cracks jokes, everyone pokes fun at Aniston for her frequent crying and LeBlanc reveals that Cox used to remember her lines by scribbling them on Monica and Rachel’s kitchen table. (Once as a prank, LeBlanc erased them right before she had a big monologue.) It’s a mix of interviews with the cast, blooper reels, table reads, behind-the-scenes moments and a redo of the infamous trivia game where Rachel incorrectly guesses that Chandler’s job is a “transponster.” (All together now: “That’s not even a word!”)

But even the questionable moments — the presence of moderator James Corden, the parade of relatively pointless celebrity cameos, the lack of discussion about the show’s nearly nonexistent diversity and criticism about jokes that didn’t age well — will be eagerly shoved aside by legions of viewers that have contributed to the show’s continued status as a cultural phenomenon. Even though it once reigned as the No. 1 television comedy for six straight seasons, it has become almost more popular worldwide in the two decades since it went off the air thanks to reruns and streaming services.

At one point, fans from around the world talk about how “Friends” changed their lives, from helping them battle depression to serving as a comfort after the death of a loved one. “They were my friends since I didn’t have any,” one tearful viewer says, while another adds, “No matter how much pain, anxiety or trouble you’re in, if you’re staring at a screen that’s playing ‘Friends,’ you’re going to laugh.”

As the producers explain, that was the point of “Friends” all along. Co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane pitched it as a sitcom about the years in your 20s when your friends are your family, but with story lines that could relate to anyone. And part of the reason for “Friends'” dominance is that the chemistry among the six stars wasn’t just on the show — their actual fondness for one another came through on the screen and has continued for all these years. Their dynamic feels similar to real-life friends that you haven’t seen in far too long: When you get together, it’s like no time has passed.

“After the initial shock of being in the same room together, I think we just fell right into our same old joking around,” Schwimmer said. “We’re a family.”

Here are some of the best, most emotional and weirdest moments from the special:

The Jennifer Aniston-David Schwimmer reveal

If there’s one “newsworthy” moment, it’s probably the one that seems the most rehearsed. “You were all young, hot, good-looking successful actors,” Corden says. “It’s inconceivable to me that there weren’t perhaps off-screen romances.”

“Uh, well … I mean, David?” Aniston responds, looking to Schwimmer.

Schwimmer then breaks the news: In the first season, he had a “major crush” on Aniston, one which was reciprocated. They were both in relationships with other people, however, so they never “crossed that boundary.”

“I remember saying one time to David, ‘It’s going to be such a bummer if the first time you and I actually kiss is going to be on national television,’” Aniston says before a segment on the famed TV couple. “We just channeled all that adoration and love for each other into Ross and Rachel.”

Given the amount of attention lavished on Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they story line (and yes, everyone, including Aniston, now agrees they really were on a break), it’s hard to imagine the chaos that would have unfolded if the tabloid media caught wind of this in the 1990s. “How did not everyone know we were crushing on each other?” Schwimmer wonders aloud. Perry and Cox assure him that, at least on set, everyone absolutely knew.

Phoebe and Lady Gaga, together at last

It’s fairly amazing to see Kudrow effortlessly slip back into the delightfully daffy character of Phoebe Buffay, and her line reading of “MY EYES! MY EYES!” is just as hilarious now as it was back when her character first accidentally stumbled across Monica and Chandler secretly hooking up. So of course she had to perform a rendition of the hit song “Smelly Cat,” only this time joined by Lady Gaga and a full-on choir. At the end of the song, Gaga gets serious for a moment.

“Thank you so much for being the person for all of us on ‘Friends’ that was the — I don’t know if this is the right way to say it — but the different one. Or the one that was really herself,” Gaga says.

Kudrow looks genuinely moved. “Thank you. And thank you for carrying it along,” she says. “I’m going to start crying.”

Details of the cast’s real-life bond

Although people mock celebrities who complain about how hard it is to be rich and famous, there’s no doubt that going from an unknown actor to globally famous superstar on a ridiculously popular TV show is a mind trip. “No one was going through what we were going through except the other five,” Schwimmer says. Aniston agrees, saying it was “imprinted in our neural pathways this sort of like, ‘We are actually family.’”

They all get teary as Perry explains that over the years, if they ever ran into each other at a party, the night was essentially over because they would inevitably spend the rest of the evening just talking to their fellow “Friends” star. And though they haven’t all hung out as a group of six, they have stayed in touch. “We have such a bond from having done this show and forged this very tight relationship that anytime you text or call someone, they’re going to pick up,” Kudrow adds. “They’ll be there.”

It also remains endearing to hear their nicknames for each other: Cox is “CC,” Perry is “Matty,” Aniston is “Jen.” And when Schwimmer reminds Aniston that her ex-husband once guest-starred on the show, he calls him, “Your fella, Brad.”

The many famous guest stars and cameos

Did you want to hear Janice (Maggie Wheeler) scream “OH. MY. GOD.” again? You’re in luck! Wheeler stops by, as do other fan-favorite guest stars such as Tom Selleck (Monica’s boyfriend); Elliott Gould and Christina Pickles (Monica and Ross’s parents); and Reese Witherspoon, who played Rachel’s sister and confesses she was secretly star-struck when Joey approached her with his iconic pickup line, “How you doin'?”

Famous people appear throughout the reunion to talk about how much they love “Friends,” including Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who makes an appearance to share that she’s like “Joey with a hint of Phoebe.” But the most bizarre celebrity-centric moment occurs when stars from Justin Bieber to model/actress Cara Delevigne star in a runway show dedicated to some of the comedy’s ridiculous outfits.

A discussion on the future

Prompted by Corden, the stars speculate about the fate of their characters. We learn they think that Phoebe and Mike (Paul Rudd) probably wound up in Connecticut with kids, Monica became a PTA mom and paleontologist Ross was obviously still “playing with bones,” as Aniston puts it, which sends LeBlanc into a giggle fit.

They confirm that this is the last time the group of them will come together to talk about the show, and there’s zero chance for a reunion or movie. The series ended on a happy note and it wouldn’t make sense to unravel it all.

“I mean, it was an incredible time. Everything came together. We became best friends. Just the chemistry, the whole thing,” Cox said. “It was life-changing and it forever will be. Not just for us, but for people who watch it — and that’s just such a great feeling to carry forever.”

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