This illustration shows the title of "Friends: The Reunion" on a screen as a person checks the HBO MAX app on their smartphone in Los Angeles. — AFP

Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer almost hooked up on the set of "Friends"-but their characters Rachel and Ross nearly didn't. Those were among the revelations die-hard "Friends" fans were treated to Thursday as a one-off reunion special of the beloved 1990s sitcom streamed on the HBO Max platform.

Asked by host James Corden if any of the six stars had real-life chemistry, both Aniston and Schwimmer confessed to "crushing hard on each other" early in the smash hit show's run. "I remember saying, one time, to David, 'It's going to be such a bummer if the first time you and I actually kiss is going to be on national television,'"recalled Aniston.

"Sure enough, first time we kissed was in that coffee shop," she said, referring to the New York-based show's famous "Central Perk" set. "So we just channeled all of our adoration and love for each other into Ross and Rachel." The two characters' on-off relationship was a cornerstone of "Friends" throughout its 10-year, 236-episode run-which ended with a romantic reconciliation.

In this file photo taken on September 22, 2002 cast members from "Friends," which won Outstanding Comedy series pose for photogarphers at the 54th Annual Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. — AFP

Co-creator David Crane said in an interview that the writers had asked themselves if the pair really should end up together. "We discussed perhaps sort of ambivalent endings," he said. "And we went 'No, this is 'Friends,' people have been waiting 10 years to see this couple get together, we've got to give them what they want.'"

Elsewhere in the reunion episode, Matthew Perry surprised his co-stars by admitting to having suffered severe anxiety "every night" during filming. The creators said Monica and Chandler's romance was intended to be a one-night stand before positive audience reactions changed their minds, and that Matt LeBlanc nearly lost out on the role of Joey to the actor who would play his fake twin in a later episode. And a parade of celebrity fans showed up.

Cara Delevingne, Cindy Crawford and Justin Bieber modeled famous comedy outfits from the show on a catwalk, while Lady Gaga sang a duet of "Smelly Cat" with Lisa Kudrow. Reviews were lukewarm, with Deadline calling the special "more filler than killer, to put it kindly," but Variety praised "a glossy, poignant, careful trip down memory lane." Still, it was all too much for some die-hard fans. "I am not crying... You are crying!" tweeted one, with a clip from the reunion of Aniston drying her eyes.

China Censors Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber

Chinese fans of the popular sitcom "Friends" were furious after censors cut guest stars Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Korean boyband BTS from the much-awaited reunion episode. When the one-off special of the beloved 1990s sitcom was streamed on three Chinese video platforms, cameos by the celebrities who have all incurred the wrath of the ruling Communist Party were removed from all versions. Lady Gaga was banned from touring China in 2016 after she met with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, who has been labeled as a separatist by Beijing.

Bieber has been blocked since 2014 when he posted a photo of himself at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals from World War II. Boyband BTS angered the party last year when they omitted any reference to Chinese fighters who died during the Korean War when speaking about the "history of pain" in the region.

Chinese fans were also quick to point out that local versions of "Friends: The Reunion" expunged all LGBTQ references from the special, which was several minutes shorter than the 104 minute show released worldwide on HBO Max on Thursday. Chinese streaming services iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video did not answer AFP queries about what prompted the censorship. The sitcom about six white New Yorkers has a huge following among Chinese millennials and is even recommended in schools as a way to learn English.

The show's popularity has also spawned Central Perk cafes in several Chinese cities, styled after the hangout regularly featured in the show. Angry fans took to social media to vent out their frustration at the censorship. "I was waiting for weeks to watch the Friends reunion only to find that the version streamed in China was all mangled," wrote one user. "Why can't the censors just let us enjoy a sitcom?" asked another.

Earning the wrath of Chinese authorities has become costly for entertainers after China became the world's box office last year surpassing the United States. Earlier this week, American wrestler and actor John Cena apologized after stirring a hornet's nest by referring to Taiwan as a country while promoting his latest movie "Fast and Furious 9." Beijing considers the democratic island a renegade province. - AFP