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Class Reunion TV Will Never Die—Even If the Class Reunion Does

Shows like ‘The Afterparty’ and ‘Yellowjackets’ have recently leaned on the well-established pop-culture trope of attending a high school reunion, proof that grappling with the past will never go out of style

Apple TV+/Showtime/FX/Hollywood Pictures/Touchstone/Ringer illustration

High school reunions: so hot right now… at least on-screen. American pop culture has weaved in and out of a love affair with nostalgia, rebooting, reimagining, and looking backward (and often reassessing), and the reunion fits right in. The class reunion (typically high school, occasionally college) as a plot point has been utilized in movies and television for what feels like forever, spanning genres and generations. It’s been a setting for slasher and horror films and supernatural TV shows in which spells go awry. A plot catalyst for fictional characters to deal with past insecurities, fall into old patterns, or find closure and move on. A whole premise for a reality TV series in the early aughts, feature films with contract killers, buddy comedies, movies that were, themselves, a reunion, and more.

Just this past month, the titular soccer players in Showtime’s Yellowjackets attended their 25th reunion. On Friday, The Afterparty, a genre-shifting murder mystery–comedy series set at a high school reunion and its afterparty, hits Apple TV+. Real-world technology has practically eliminated the utility of the class reunion—it’s easier to stay connected to one’s past than ever before. But as a plot mechanism, the class reunion is still as useful as ever.

On-screen reunions tend to share certain characteristics. One common reunion-based plot point is a character seeking revenge on a former peer who wronged them (whether or not reality lines up with the character’s memory of it), like the gang in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Another finds a character rekindling (or hoping to rekindle) an old flame or crush, like Miri (Elizabeth Banks) in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Aniq (Sam Richardson) in The Afterparty, and Martin (John Cusack) in Grosse Pointe Blank. Some characters are excited to reunite with the crew for a just-like-old-times romp, like the guys in American Reunion or the friends in 10 Years. Others use the reunion to work through insecurities and seek to impress their former classmates, like Peggy Bundy (Katey Sagal) in Married … With Children, Carl Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson) in Family Matters, or the titular characters in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. At the reunion, there’s often a character who’s gotten super successful and/or famous, someone who’s unrecognizable, someone who peaked in high school, and someone who’s lying about their postgraduation life. The class reunion is ultimately a way for characters to confront and cope with their pasts in humorous, suspenseful, and dramatic ways. It can be a useful tool to show the audience how a character has changed and grown (or not) since their school days. It’s also a great excuse for fun, retro needle drops.

The musical aspect is one of the elements Jon Hurwitz, cowriter and codirector (with his creative partner and former high school classmate Hayden Schlossberg) of American Reunion, tells me he was “really excited about” when it came time to shape the East Great Falls High class of 1999’s 13th reunion. “To be able to play all that late-’90s music that we grew up on was a really fun thing to embrace,” he says, particularly since American Pie came out shortly after he’d graduated high school. “Those were characters that we knew inside and out, just like the people that we went to school with.” Hurwitz and Schlossberg didn’t make it to their own 10th reunion, but Hurwitz says the fact that he and Schlossberg were “reaching that age when reunions were a thing” inspired them with American Reunion. “When you do hit those years,” he says, “you become aware of it: ‘Oh my God, it’s been 10 years, it’s been 20 years since I was in high school.’ Those are moments where you take stock in where you are, where you were.”

Robin Schiff, the screenwriter of 1997’s Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and D.V. DeVincentis, a cowriter of 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank, did both attend their high school reunions, though they both admit that it wasn’t exactly their top personal priority at the time. Schiff’s then-agent, a friend she also went to high school with, “talked me into going, and if I hadn’t … I would’ve had no perspective when I wrote the movie,” she says. “I was so glad I went .... [I got to] get my curiosity satisfied and sort of realize that you project things onto people that have a lot more to do with you, who you are, than who they are.”

When creating Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, “I just had to be honest with myself,” Schiff tells me. “I didn’t even care about the people in my graduating class, and I still cared if I impressed them. So I used that for Romy and Michele. I think everybody goes to that high school reunion wanting to be a different version of yourself—or maybe the same version of yourself.”

DeVincentis, meanwhile, says he wouldn’t have gone to his reunion (which was also the reunion for Grosse Pointe Blank cowriters Steve Pink and John Cusackalso the film’s star) had he, Cusack, and Pink not been working on a script about that very same thing. “[It’s] a custom that creates a great deal of pressure for people to reassess their lives at a point where it’s probably a little early to be assessing one’s life,” DeVincentis says. But he was happy he went: “One thing that I definitely took away from the reunion experience and made sure to put in the film was the surprise at every turn. … The feeling of being very exposed was something that I felt at the reunion, and I definitely focused on that in Martin Blank’s experience.”

The real-life reunion feelings—wanting to impress, taking stock, feeling exposed, surprise, curiosity—that made it into these movies are one reason the class reunion plot persists. The emotions the trope brings up are relatable and universal. Gen X’er TV critic Alan Sepinwall went to his 10th high school reunion in the early aughts, and cites curiosity about “how people would get along” and “looking for a better experience with these people, many of whom I did like, than I had necessarily had in high school” as part of his interest in attending. Sepinwall also says, though, that he hardly went into it with dramatic Grosse Pointe–esque expectations: “I didn’t think that there was going to be assassins roaming around in the hallway or anything like that.”

Inkoo Kang, also a TV critic and a self-described “old millennial,” didn’t go to her reunion. “I was not invited. … I guess technically I could have reached out to someone, this is for my 10th, if I had wanted to, but I also did not want to,” she says. “I think the core, nerd nightmare vision of a high school reunion was captured so brilliantly on 30 Rock, where you think that you are a lovable loser, and it turns out you’re the bitch. And I think that I have always feared that this might be the case for me.” Another millennial, Lindsay Denninger, tells me she attended her 10-year reunion for the sake of tradition, but that “some of my friends [who] didn’t attend said they didn’t need to because they could see it all on social media.” Along that same logic, Sepinwall says that he hasn’t gone to any reunion since his 10th, in part because, “now I’m Facebook friends with these people. So if I’m curious what Darren or John or whoever is up to, I can just go and look on their Facebook page.”

How does the addition of social media connectivity change the flavor of the reunion sauce? American Reunion, for instance, had to engage with social media as a reality—it came out in 2012, when Facebook existed as a mainstream platform for digital connection, but had yet to explode into quite the behemoth it is today. In American Reunion, the event is organized via Facebook and there are a few mentions of characters “stalking” each other’s Facebook pages, but overall, the film engages only minimally with social media. “We were just trying to root it in the reality of the world at that time,” Hurwitz says. “People were in touch in a light way, but there’s really no substitute to being in the same space with these people who you knew in your youth. … What you see of a person on social media isn’t their real life entirely. You’re seeing what they want to put out there.” The Afterparty also proceeds with a light touch—technological connection is an acknowledged reality, but not a premise-shaking focal point.

DeVincentis posits that he “might not have been as surprised by people” at his own reunion if Facebook had been around then—though one guy did bring a scrapbook detailing his life to the reunion, which is basically an analog social media profile—but he thinks it would’ve been a fun element to incorporate into Grosse Pointe Blank, since it would create conditions for an amplified version of the projection and expectation that reunions elicit. “I would imagine you’d go to an event like this, these days, expecting someone’s real-life presentation to confirm what they’ve presented online,” he says. “It’s got to create more anxiety.” Schiff, however, says that she doesn’t think Romy and Michele would’ve worked if social media had been a thing then: “You know how people turn out. … So why do you need the plot of the movie?” The fact that there was “no internet” at the time was an advantage for the movie, preserving both the curiosity and surprise elements of a reunion.

In 2022, whether folks can take or leave their own reunions, they’re often able to reference at least one memorable depiction of a reunion on-screen, suggesting that the plot point still resonates. But perhaps, in 2032, class reunions will take place in the Metaverse™. Maybe by 2052, even those will cease to exist entirely. If technological advancement renders class reunions obsolete, it follows that the reunion as a relatable storytelling mechanism will feel more and more outdated and less relevant, and its utility in pop culture will diminish. Gen Z, for example, hasn’t yet reached the 10-year high school reunion age, but as Tu Anh, a millennial who did not attend her reunion, points out, “The thought of anyone from Euphoria attending a high school reunion is insane.”

On the other hand, the feelings and impulses associated with a class reunion—that deep need to grapple with the past—are an intrinsic part of human nature. If the IRL existence of the class reunion fades away, maybe there’ll just be an onscreen future full of How I Met Your Mother–style voice-overs explaining what, exactly, a high school reunion was back in the day.

Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the World Wide Web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).