Friends Experience DC: Binge Watching Fans Find Pandemic Comfort

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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 eyed a real coffee mug in a fake version of Central Perk, the fake coffee shop from the sitcom “Friends.”

Around the corner was a reconstruction of Joey and Chandler’s apartment. And a guitar case, set up to raise money, had to belong to Phoebe. And a reenactment of the set for Monica and Rachel’s apartment where a real person, said one co-worker, once suggested a real marriage. This, just a giant poking device away from the Metro Center station, was the Friends Experience: a tribute to the Los Angeles soundstage that hosted a fictionalized version of New York City from 1994 to 2004 where six people performed comedy scripts for an audience of millions.

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

“You kind of feel like you’re in it,” Allen said of the Experience.

After two years of pandemic living, fans in DC are turning to “Friends” here, more compellingly. However, the Experience probably isn’t for those whose job is a joke and who are broke: standard tickets are over $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. On the plane, she watched the “Friends” reunion due out in 2021, then was lured to the Experience by an ad she saw in Union Station.

“Friends,” she said, evoking her own life experience. “I didn’t live with my family,” said Smith, 38. “I made my friends my family.”

Victoria Billar was from Charlottesville. Now 27, she was too young to watch “Friends” when it first aired, but thought the search for love and friendship it portrayed still appeals to every young person.

“It’s not just recognizable to people who were in their twenties in the 90s,” she said.

It’s also escapist. Spacious, rent-controlled two-bedroom New York City, like Monica inherited in “Friends,” is a dream at a time when rents are skyrocketing in the DC area and many other metro areas. A show about six straight white people, “Friends,” didn’t have to address fraught social issues, and for the most part it didn’t. The September 11, 2001 attacks are never mentioned, although they distorted the season 8 broadcast.

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

“They are not satisfied or dissatisfied with the present,” Batcho suggested. “They’re trying to fix that — to sort it out a little bit by finding something better than we have now.”

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

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

Superfly X teamed up with Warner Bros. to open the first “Friends” pop-up in real New York City in 2019. After 30 days of tickets sold out within an hour, it decided to take the Experience on the road, said Stacy Moscatelli, the company’s co-president and chief strategy officer. The recreated sets have now visited Boston, Chicago and other cities and arrived in DC in March.

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

The experiences are not museums. While signed scripts and other ephemera appear in the Friends Experience, fans want more: “the ability to walk in 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.”

Over the course of all those rewatches, “Friends” humor has aged, and not all of it is good. Kelsey Miller, who lives in the real New York and wrote the book “I’ll Be There for You: The One about ‘Friends'”, is annoyed by homophobia, body shaming and lack of diversity. But the show, still on TV today, calms people down in awkward situations, she said: checking into a motel in an unfamiliar city, for example, or staying up all night with a new kid or, yes, the enter lockdown to survive a global contagion.

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“Turning on friends—okay, that’s a familiar thing,” Miller said. “It’s an unusual or unusually powerful source of comfort for many people.”

And in a hyper-online era where everything competes for your attention, “Friends” doesn’t ask for much. “You might think of it as background noise, but still know what’s going on,” said Sophia Assuras, 21, a recent Experience visitor.

Assuras, a recent graduate student visiting DC from Ontario, was drawn to both the Friends Experience and a Van Gogh experience that offered hyper-realistic versions of real paintings seen elsewhere. She ended up having both experiences.

Such immersion was not always an option. Many shows of yesteryear do not envelop the viewer 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 real New York City, said the sitcom offers a certain “fantasy of adulthood” to a younger audience. It is one where, in addition to the low rent, people with a job and even young families can still have breakfast together.

“It’s kind of harmless in a way,” Austerlitz said. “Perhaps people are looking for harmless fun, at a time when it seems like little.”

Ryan Bacic and Bonnie Jo Mount contributed to this report.

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