With the annual summer plague of stupefyingly moronic reality shows and indecipherable Canadian science fiction not yet upon us, television this week turns to archeology to entertain us, and does surprisingly well. No, not an all-Mummy weekend, but an excavation of the entertainment past: a Friends reunion and a lost George Romero movie. As is usually the case when you go digging into tombs, the results are fairly incomprehensible unless you have some context, but if you do, oh my.
Take, for example, Friends: the Reunion. Not a remake or a reboot, Reunion is mostly a panel chat of the show’s six-member cast, interspersed with blooper reels and shots of them poking around the old sets. If you’re not a Friends fan, it will be nearly impossible to imagine why the studio audience is doubled over laughing when Courtney Cox asks a tardy Matthew Perry as he wanders onto the set, “Could you be any later?” Or the roar that greets the question to the cast members, “Were they on a break?”
But before you non-Friends fans go on a rant about self-referential television solipsism, consider some numbers. Over 236 episodes spanning 10 seasons from 1994 to 2004 (and that’s not even counting four seasons of the spinoffs Joey and Episodes), Friends averaged 25 million viewers a week—and more than doubled that for the series finale. It’s estimated to have been watched 100 billion times in all, a mind-boggling number that turns TV icons like I Love Lucy or Gunsmoke or M*A*S*H* or Seinfeld into so much dust in the video wind.
So, yes, even if you’re not part of it, there’s a gargantuan audience out there to laugh in delight as Matt LeBlanc confesses that his audition for the part of stud-muffin actor Joey was an incoherent flop, and he got the role only because he admitted to the producers that he got so wasted the night before that he passed out face-down in a toilet. Or David Schwimmer, who played the nerdy paleontologist Ross, announce that he hated Marcel, his pet monkey on the show, for smearing the intestines of his live grubworm snack on Schwimmer’s shoulders during takes. By the end of Season 1, declares Schwimmer, “It was time for Marcel to fuck off.”
Lots of visitors stop by, in person or on video, to disclose arcana about their Friends fandom. Soccer star David Beckham says his favorite episode—make of this what you will—was the one in which LeBlanc’s character went commando while wearing the pants of his pal Chandler (Perry). Members of the South Korean boy band BTS—it’s not clear whether this is a tribute or an indictment—explain that they learned English from watching Friends. And if you ever wanted to hear Lady Gaga sing “Smelly Cat,” this is your chance.
The closest thing to breaking news in the reunion show, at least if you’re part of the E! Entertainment generation, is that Schwimmer and his on-air sweetheart Jennifer Aniston (the coddled daddy’s girl Rachel), despite years of denials of any romance on the Friends set, were “crushing hard” during the first season. But, they insist, they never consummated it, even with a kiss. To which LeBlanc murmurs, “Bullshit.”
Watching, it’s sometimes hard to avoid a wispy sense that it’s premature to be watching a reunion of the cast of a show that’s still on the air, sometimes four or five times a day on various cable networks. The answer is that, syndication aside, there hasn’t been a new episode of Friends in 17 years. One of the startling things about the reunion show is that Ross and Rachel and the gang, who had barely turned 30 when we saw them last night on TBS, are suddenly well into their 50s. Cox has had some work on her face; Perry has packed some pounds onto his. Collectively, they look great for people you haven’t seen in 17 years—if you’ve got a class reunion coming up, see if I’m not right—but time marches on, even for the Jennifer Anistons of the world.
Yet the appeal of Friends still rings clear after all these years, to multiple generations. The show was nominally aimed at Generation X when it debuted in 1994, but I remember at the time a retired 60-something FBI agent telling me we had to wrap up our interview because Friends was about to start. And last summer, my girlfriend’s great-grandsons astonished me with detailed summaries and funniest moments of their favorite episodes. The show’s concept—that in a mobile America where nobody stays long in the same ZIP code, particularly in their 20s, your family is your friends—still resonates.
The somewhat less tender message of George Romero’s The Amusement Park might be summed up, “Life sucks and then you die.” And the story behind it is much weirder than any of his multitudinous zombie epics.
The Amusement Park was originally commissioned in 1970 as a public-service spot for a be-nice-to-old people committee of the Lutheran Society. Why they approached Romero, whose only completed work at that time was a compendium of slobbering zombies munching on livers and intestines in the original Night of the Living Dead, is a question the Lutherans doubtless asked themselves many times later.
But by then, it was too late. Romero had turned a quickie commercial into an hour-long maze of squalor and necrosis that so horrified the group that they killed it on the spot. The film was locked away for nearly 50 years until archivists stumbled across it and restored it. Three years later, it’s now getting its first real screening on the streaming service Shudder.
If any of those Lutherans are still around, nothing they see in The Amusement Park is likely to make them regret burying it. Like Romero’s zombie films, it’s short on production costs, acting talent (the on-screen announcement that the cast is made up of volunteers is scarcely necessary), plot and just about everything else but ghastliness. The film’s lone professional actor, Lincoln Maazel (who would later star in Romero’s 1977 vampire movie Martin), plays an old man in a white suit who looks a good bit like Colonel Sanders and wanders into a seedy carnival.
Blundering into a line of decrepit and dweebish old people, he’s jostled, spilled upon and cheated by insolent, smirking baby boomer barkers and attendants. The rides all require blood-pressure exams and heart tests, which the old people nearly always flunk. They’re high-hatted by waiters who serve them beans while nearby 1-percenters swill on lobsters; they’re cheated by insurance adjustors, gouged by landlords, strapped to iron-maiden-looking “rehabilitation” machinery by doctors. They’re swindled by Florida real-estate sharpies, and they’re beaten with chains by bikers who steal their ride tickets. (Maybe that scene was a flashback to Altamont?) And at the end, a lot of them get driven into an attraction called “Boot Hill” from which they don’t seem to emerge—except Maazel, who faces the camera and intones: “I’ll see you in the amusement park.”
I’m sure Romero, who reentered Boot Hill for good in 2017 at the age of 77, never imagined The Amusement Park would be getting screenings five decades after he shot it. But if he were still around, he would no doubt be amused by the irony that all the baby boomer villains of the film have by now turned into ancient victims. And I suspect he’d be planning a sequel, Social Security and Medicare, in which the oldsters turn vampire, endlessly draining the lifeblood of their own kids and grandkids while stuffing themselves with AARP-discounted early-bird dinners. You won’t have to tune in Shudder to see that one.