Friends Experience DC: binge-watching fans find comfort in pandemic

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In a retail space in downtown Washington that was once the real Woodward & Lothrop building before it was a real Forever 21, Michelle Allen examined a real coffee mug in a fake version of Central Perk, the fake cafe from the sitcom “Friends.” .

Around the corner was a recreation of Joey and Chandler’s apartment. And a guitar case, assembled to raise money, that was supposed to be Phoebe’s. And a reenactment of the setting for Monica and Rachel’s apartment, where a real person, said an employee, once proposed a royal marriage. This, a mere giant poking device away from the Metro Center station, was the Friends Experience: a tribute to the Los Angeles studio that, from 1994 to 2004, hosted a fictionalized version of New York City, where six people staged comic scripts for an audience. of millions.

Allen, 42, came from Landover, Maryland, with her daughter and her boyfriend. They watched “Friends” in the car.

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

Two years into the pandemic, DC fans are turning, more immersively here, to “Friends.” The experience, however, is probably not for those whose jobs are a joke and who are broke: Standard tickets cost upwards of $40.

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

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

Victoria Billar hails from Charlottesville. Now 27, she was too young to watch “Friends” when it aired, but she thought the search for love and friendship it portrayed still talks to any young man.

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

It’s escapist too. Two spacious, rent-controlled rooms in New York City, as Monica inherited on “Friends,” is a dream come true at a time when rent in the DC area and many other metropolitan areas is skyrocketing. A show about six straight white people, “Friends” didn’t need to address complicated social issues, and for the most part it didn’t. The September 11, 2001 attacks are never mentioned, although they disrupted the airing of Season 8.

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

“They are unhappy or dissatisfied with the present,” suggested Batcho. “They are looking to remedy that – to fix it by finding something better than what we have now.”

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

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

Superfly X worked with Warner Bros. to open the first “Friends” popup of 2019 in real New York City. After 30 days of selling out in an hour, the company decided to take the experience on the road, according to Stacy Moscatelli, the company’s co-president and chief strategy officer. The recreated sets have already visited Boston, Chicago and other cities, having arrived in DC in March.

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

Experiences are not museums. While signed scripts and other ephemera appear on 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.”

Through all these revisions, the “Friends” mood has aged, and not very 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 his homophobia, body shame and lack of diversity. But the show, ever-present on TV so far, soothes people in uncomfortable situations, she said: whether staying at a motel in an unfamiliar city, for example, or staying up all night with a new child, or, yes, going inside. in lockdown to survive a global contagion.

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“Turning on ‘Friends’ – okay, that’s a familiar thing,” Miller said. “It is an unusual or extraordinarily potent source of comfort for many people.”

Plus, in a hyper-online age where everything is vying for your attention, “Friends” doesn’t ask for much. “You can watch it as background noise, but still know what’s going on,” said Sophia Assuras, 21, a recent visitor to the Experience.

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

This immersion was not always an option. Many shows from the past do not involve 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” author who lives in real New York City, said the sitcom offers a particular “adulthood fantasy” for younger audiences. It’s one where, in addition to the low rent, people with jobs and even young families still have breakfast together.

“It’s a bit innocent in a way,” Austerlitz said. “Perhaps people are looking for innocent pleasures, at a time when these seem few and far between.”

Ryan Bacic and Bonnie Jo Mount contributed to this report.

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