Who Is 'The Friends Experience' For? We Went and Still Can't Figure it Out

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A woman with bright red hair stands behind a coffee shop counter, head resting on chin.
KQED Arts staff writer Rae Alexandra behind the 'Friends Experience' version of Central Perk's counter. (Ria Garewal)

In Season 5, episode 20 of Friends, Ross, Chandler and Joey go on a ride-along with Phoebe's cop boyfriend, Gary. After a car backfires in their vicinity, the gang confuses the sound for a gunshot, and Ross ends the night claiming he's had a near-death experience. When Rachel finds out the truth, she chastises him. "Ross!" she exclaims. "That was not a near-death experience! That was barely an experience!"

That phrase — barely an experience — rolled around my head after visiting The Friends Experience, a new immersive event currently in downtown San Francisco. Set up in the former H&M flagship store on Powell St., any whiff of a bargain is long-gone. Adult tickets cost between $42 and $60, plus (Oh. My. Gawd) $6–$9 booking fees. Meanwhile, the gift shop offers $50 sweatpants, $45 aprons and basic Central Perk coffee cup ornaments that are somehow $35. Each Friends character gets their own small corner of the exhibit, but the one I left thinking about was Phoebe. Specifically, 14-year-old Phoebe screaming "Gimme your money, punk!" at suckers on the street.

At its core, this smaller version of the already established New York City Friends Experience is a collection of selfie opportunities interspersed with a few replica items. Think Joey's dog statue (behind a rope so visitors don't ride it) and Monica's fez-wearing Thanksgiving turkey (in a display cube lest anyone put it on their heads). The only props here that appeared in the actual show are the soap powder box from "The One With the East German Laundry Detergent" and a box of Girl Scout cookies Ross sold in "The One Where Rachel Quits." (Could I be any more underwhelmed?)

A woman sits at a kitchen table on a set resembling one from 1990s TV show, 'Friends.'
KQED Arts Engagement Producer Ria Garewal in Monica's kitchen, as depicted in 'The Friends Experience,' San Francisco. (Rae Alexandra)

If you are one of those humans enthusiastic about forking over hard-earned cash to pose next to things, there are certainly things to pose next to at The Friends Experience: recreations of Joey and Chandler's living room, Monica and Rachel's kitchen, the hallway, the balcony, Central Perk, the couch next to the fountain and the stairwell where Ross yelled "Pivot!" While all of these rooms are novel to see in 3D, none of them work hard enough to convince visitors they're on the actual real-life Friends set.

It might sound pedantic that I noticed the absence of Monica's white Cookie Time clock, and the fact that the shelves on the fake sets felt strangely sparse, but when ticket prices are this high, fans deserve that sort of attention to detail. Some of the issues at The Friends Experience aren't small, either. Joey and Chandler's leather chairs are facing the wrong direction, and their foosball table is in a really weird place. Monica's famous purple front door doesn't open (even though images on the official website depict otherwise), limiting how much fun you can actually have with it.

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Worst of all, there's a wig display that's supposed to represent "The Rachel." It bears very little resemblance to Jennifer Aniston's hairstyle journey on the show — a big Va' fa Napoli to everyone who remembers what she actually looked like.

A red, blue and yellow display featuring five dummy heads wearing wigs of different hairstyles.
'The Rachel' haircut as depicted by wigs at 'The Friends Experience.' (Ria Garewal)

That slapdash approach carries over into a downright perplexing section purporting to feature classic Friends fashions. Not only does this area omit anything iconic, it features only one ensemble my companion and I — both ardent Friends nerds — even recognized. If you were hoping to see Ross' leather pants, Chandler's sweater vest, Phoebe's Santa pants, Monica's 'Girls' sweater or one of Rachel Green's scores of fashion-forward moments, this particular corner of The Friends Experience will leave you wondering if anyone responsible for it watched the show past Season 1.

The Friends Experience is not all bad. There are blown up copies of Ross' "Science Boy" comic strip, as well as Rachel's 18-page letter to Ross (front and back!) to read. There's a quick trivia quiz. There's also a wall of flyers based on memorable moments from the show's 10 seasons that is a genuine joy to pick through. (The flyer for Estelle's talent agency should be in the gift shop.)

Even when The Friends Experience is getting stuff right, though, it's also somehow getting it wrong. A genuinely interesting video interview with costume designer Debra McGuire is positioned too close to another recording (Ross yelling "Pivot!") to listen to it comfortably. A subway map of the characters' love interests throughout the seasons is set up in an area that makes it too hard to read.

A wall of posters haphazardly thrown together on a fake brick wall.
A wall of fake (and fun) flyers at 'The Friends Experience'. (Ria Garewal)

The Friends Experience, as I had it — a press preview before it opened to the public — is as good as it's going to get. No crowds, no on-the-clock tour guide pushing us along, no waiting for other fans to take their photos. And yet at no point was I able to figure out whom this exhibit was designed for. Only big-time fans would pay this ticket price, but big-time fans will learn almost nothing new from The Friends Experience. Not to mention the fact that most Friends fans from its original run are of a generation where the idea of taking selfies on sets for social media purposes holds extremely limited appeal.

Clearly the original Friends Experience in New York has been a success. If it wasn't, touring equivalents wouldn't be weaving their way around the country right now. But Friends fans — even the casual ones — deserve more than "The One in San Francisco."

'The Friends Experience' is now open at 150 Powell St., San Francisco. Details here.