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No one told D.C. ‘Friends’ fans pandemic life was gonna be this way

Michael Francis, 28, and Elizabeth Lucas, 32, of Arlington, Va., take a photo at the Friends Experience on May 12. Francis said they've watched the series multiple times and are doing so again. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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In a downtown Washington retail space that was once the real Woodward & Lothrop building before it was a real Forever 21, Michelle Allen examined a real coffee mug in a faux version of Central Perk, the fake coffee shop from the sitcom “Friends.”

Around the corner was a re-creation of Joey and Chandler’s apartment. And a guitar case, set up to collect money, that was supposed to be Phoebe’s. And a reenactment of the set for Monica and Rachel’s apartment where a real person, an employee said, once proposed a real marriage. This, a mere giant poking device away from the Metro Center station, was the Friends Experience: a tribute to the Los Angeles soundstage that, from 1994 to 2004, hosted a fictional version of New York City where six people enacted comedic scripts for an audience of millions.

Allen, 42, had come from Landover, Md., with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. They watched “Friends” in the car.

“You feel like you’re inside it a little,” Allen said of the Experience.

After two years of pandemic living, fans in D.C. are turning, more immersively here, to “Friends.” The Experience, though, is probably not for those whose jobs are a joke and who are broke: Standard tickets are more than $40.

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Chani Smith thought it was worth it. Smith, who lives in Israel, was in town for her niece’s graduation from Gallaudet University. On the plane, she watched the “Friends” reunion that came out in 2021, then was lured to the Experience by an ad she saw in Union Station.

“Friends,” she said, evoked her own life experience. “I did not live with my family,” Smith, 38, said. “I made my friends my family.”

Victoria Billar came from Charlottesville. Now 27, she was too young to watch “Friends” when it first aired, but thought the quest for love and friendship it depicted still speaks to any young person.

“It’s relatable not just for people who were in their 20s in the ’90s,” she said.

It’s escapist, too. Roomy, rent-controlled New York City two-bedrooms, like Monica inherited in “Friends,” are a dream at a time when rent in the D.C. region and many other metro areas is skyrocketing. A show about six straight White people, “Friends” didn’t need to address fraught social issues, and it largely didn’t. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are never mentioned, though they scrambled the airing of Season 8.

That fits the moment. Krystine I. Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College who studies nostalgia, said people have been “wounded” in recent years, enduring lockdowns and isolation and spending too much time in virtual realities. There’s a reason they might gravitate to a show called “Friends.”

“They’re unhappy with or dissatisfied with the present,” Batcho suggested. “They are seeking to remedy that — to sort of fix it by finding something better than we have now.”

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A French postmodern philosopher once mourned the fact that images no longer bear any relation to reality. At the Friends Experience, no one seems to mind.

And not just here. There’s a royal “Bridgerton” ball going on in Northeast D.C. A Little Mermaid Cocktail Experience came in January. Superfly X, the New York-based company behind the Friends Experience, will bring that treatment to “The Office” in D.C. this summer, for those who wish to visit a re-creation of the Los Angeles set of a fictional Scranton, Pa., paper company.

Superfly X worked with Warner Bros. to open the first “Friends” pop-up in 2019 in the real New York City. After 30 days’ worth of tickets sold out in an hour, it decided to take the Experience on the road, according to Stacy Moscatelli, the firm’s co-president and chief strategy officer. The re-created sets have now visited Boston, Chicago and other cities, having arrived in D.C. in March.

“You just can’t underestimate what these shows mean to people,” Moscatelli said. (She declined to comment on Superfly X revenue.)

The experiences aren’t museums. Though signed scripts and other ephemera show up in the Friends Experience, fans want more: “the opportunity to walk inside those worlds,” Moscatelli said.

“Especially during the pandemic, people turned to these shows that felt like comfort food,” she said. “They feel like they know the characters. They watch these shows over and over again.”

Over the course of all those re-watches, the humor of “Friends” has aged, and not all well. Kelsey Miller, who lives in the real New York and wrote the book “I’ll Be There for You: The One about ‘Friends,’” chafes at its homophobia, body-shaming and lack of diversity. But the show, ever-present on TV even now, soothes people in uncomfortable situations, she said: when checking into a motel in an unfamiliar city, for example, or staying up all night with a new child or, yes, entering lockdown to survive a global contagion.

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“Turning on ‘Friends’ — okay, that’s something familiar,” Miller said. “It’s an unusual or unusually potent source of comfort for a lot of people.”

Plus, in a hyperonline era in which everything is competing for your attention, “Friends” doesn’t ask much. “You could watch it like background noise but still know what’s going on,” said Sophia Assuras, 21, a recent Experience visitor.

Assuras, a recent college graduate visiting D.C. from Ontario, was drawn both to the Friends Experience and a Van Gogh experience that offered hyperreal versions of actual paintings on display elsewhere. She eventually experienced both experiences.

Such immersion was not always an option. Many shows of yesteryear do not envelop viewers in an alternate universe. There is no M*A*S*H Experience. There is no Car 54, Where Are You? Experience.

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Saul Austerlitz, another “Friends”-book author who lives in the real New York City, said the sitcom offers a particular “fantasy of adulthood” to younger audiences. It’s one in which, besides the low rent, people with jobs and even young families still get to have breakfast together.

“It’s a bit innocent, in a way,” Austerlitz said. “Perhaps people are searching for innocent pleasure, at a moment where those seem few and far between.”

Ryan Bacic and Bonnie Jo Mount contributed to this report.