When news first broke that 2021 would include some sort of Friends reunion show, my inner eyes rolled. Nope. I was definitely not interested in a where-are-they-now peek into the lives of Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Ross.

But early viewers corrected my assumption—this wasn’t a new episode visiting the characters in their 2021 state, a la Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life or Fuller House. Instead, this was a reunion of the cast, actors Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. While I’m by no means a Friends superfan, I have a soft spot for the show and the actors. Curiosity won, and I turned to HBO Max’s Friends: The Reunion, and I was unexpectedly caught up in some very complex nostalgia.

Friends aired for a full decade on NBC, from September 22, 1994, to May 6, 2004. It was truly the cultural zeitgeist of the era; and looking back, it was also the emotional backdrop of my twenties. The creators, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, developed the show to focus on the friendships between six twenty-something adults—three women, three men—starting out their adult life in New York City. The premise was simple: it’s a show about the time in your life when your friends were your family.

Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Ross gave us something greater to aspire toward: togetherness. 

For 10 years, viewers tuned in as the six figured out how to adult over the course of 235 episodes. They helped each other through romantic difficulties, personal struggles, work troubles, family drama, and wrenching losses. And like millions of other viewers, many of my Thursday nights as a 20-year-old were spent with these six characters who played out in exaggerated scenes the same sort of adulthood bewilderment that I was living every day.

The first episode of Friends aired on September 22, 1994. Just months before, I would have turned 22; a few weeks later, I would have celebrated my second wedding anniversary. I would have just started working in corporate marketing, my first full-time professional job post-college. I have no recollection of watching the premiere that night. But I have a solid guess where I was.

Starting in 1992, Thursday was our laundry night at my parent’s house. I did that because our apartment’s shared, dimly lit laundry room, located in the basement, creeped me out. Each week, I loaded up baskets of clothes and linens and settled into the familiar family room at my parents’ as the washing machine whirred and the dryer spun the week out of each load. Quite often my parents would treat us to pizza for dinner—a real gift for newlyweds like us (and we still consider pizza a food group all its own).

Eventually, Friends became part of this ritual. The laundry-dinner-Friends routine continued for three solid years, until we took the next step in adulthood and bought a house—with a washer and dryer. That meant we could do laundry any time, night or day, if we wanted. Our Thursday night routine changed then, and with it, our commitment to watching Friends. Episodes from seasons 4 to 10 were watched only sporadically, some seasons more consistently than others. I watched regularly enough, however, to know how the storylines curved and how each character’s life was unfolding.

Like me, each Friends character faced one adulthood milestone after another. Life as a young adult was full of firsts, full of change, although it wasn’t ever progressing fast enough (for them or for me). What I remember most from my twenties is the sense that adulthood had more frustrations and disappointments than I had anticipated. The exaggerated scenarios depicted each week in Friends were quite different from my everyday life. But the feelings I felt as a twentysomething? Friends nailed it. The writers seemed to have a PICC line into my young adult angst.

Each week as the Rembrandts sang their now-iconic “I’ll Be There for You,” the lyrics served as a checklist by which adulthood success is typically measured: your job, your love life, your forward motion. With each episode, we could check in on the progress each one was making (or not).

Everything about American life tells us that successful adulting is connected to our accomplishments. Even if we know that our lives are worth more than what we do, this is the air we breathe. These measures are embedded and have taken root in our hearts. We feel the weight of them subconsciously. Our loyalty to them rises up in our unvoiced envies and slips out in our self-deprecating comments. 

Deep down, we believe that successful adults are those who have achieved a certain sort of prosperity, one defined by the tenets of the American dream. So when our lives are “stuck in second gear,” with the American dream so very far out of reach, adulthood is just a tremendous let down.

Generally speaking, Friends was built on this sense of disillusionment. While it didn’t offer an outright alternate vision of the good life, the pieces of one were there for the taking. I’m not sure I could see it when I first watched the series, but over the years, as I’ve watched reruns, I saw it. And I especially noticed it during the reunion show.

Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Ross gave us something greater to aspire toward: togetherness. 

After a bad day of Adulting, they would meet up at Central Perk or in Monica’s apartment to share their various woes. They listened to each other. They offered advice and encouragement. They would comfort each other. They would poke fun at pet theories and idiosyncrasies, for each other’s good. They were in life together, for the good stuff and the hard stuff.

No matter how much of the American dream we wrangle for ourselves, none of us will slip through life without heartache. We need friends who will walk the way with us. I’ve found the greatest gift of adulthood has been the friends who stayed present in my darkest days. These dear people—like me—aren’t perfect. They have their own struggles and troubles. But together, we are learning what it means to be adults and build a life of meaning. My friends remind me what’s important. They beckon me to put aside patterns of thought and habits of life that aren’t good for me. They sit with me in my grief. 

None of this is held up as part of the American dream or the goal of adulthood. But our lives are better when we do.

While we watched Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Ross make sense of adulthood, the actors were forging their own bonds, for real. In real life, Jennifer, Courteney, Lisa, Matt, Matthew, and David were figuring out how to navigate their own mishaps and missteps. Together, they were facing their collective rise to fame as well as their individual struggles. They were in each other’s corner, ready to listen, offer advice and encouragement and comfort. (And I’m guessing there was plenty of friendly banter and razzing.) Friends helped them figure out how to adult, too. 

The beauty of their real-life friendship is what shined through the most in the reunion show. After a walk through the old set and reading a few scripts together, the actors sat down with James Cordon to reflect upon their experience as part of this cultural monolith. We got to see beyond the characters they embodied, to see them as actors, as people. Jennifer, Courteney, Lisa, Matt, Matthew, and David experienced for real what they were portraying on screen: they experienced true friendship. And they let us see what a gift Friends was to them, for providing friendships that are still going strong today.

And maybe that’s what made this show such a lasting success. The friendships were real on screen and off. Maybe that’s why I watched—I could see, beyond the often hilarious, sometimes painful scenarios of the storylines, the beauty of true friendship and the gift of being present to others. Friends showed us how beautiful it is when someone is there for you, no matter what.