Netflix's Friends From College squanders its excellent cast
Keegan-Michael Key. Cobie Smulders. Fred Savage. Annie Parisse. Nat Faxon. Jae Suh Park. Billy Eichner. Greg Germann. What a cast. And what a waste. Friends From College is one of the year’s biggest disappointments — a promising generational sitcom that might have had something to offer its target audience of middle-aged folks raised on Friends but squanders all of our interest with mirthless, misguided strategies for holding it. The only spectacle it offers is the shocking magic trick of turning a bright, dazzling cast into a bunch of dim bulbs.
The title suggests an ensemble show. But Friends From College orbits around Key’s Ethan Turner, an acclaimed writer of literary fiction seeking a blockbuster success, and churns through his relationships with two women that date back to their shared Harvard days: a marriage with Lisa (Smulders), a corporate attorney, and an affair with Sam (Parisse), a successful businesswoman who is married, with problem child, to a successful businessman (Germann). We meet Ethan and Sam en medias humping, playing out a sex-comedy scenario that includes not one but two clichés (the awkward position gag; the I-forgot-the-rubber chestnut). Key and Parisse make you giggle, anyway, and we like them immediately. So we’re surprised — and feel a bit manipulated — when we learn the illicit nature of the liaison. They’ve been stepping out on their spouses for 20 years. It’s an occasional, lust-driven thing that owes its heat and secrecy to nostalgia and distance: Ethan lives in Chicago and Sam lives in New York.
But not anymore. Things change and chickens start coming home to roost, when Lisa accepts a new job that requires that she and Ethan relocate to Manhattan. The move doesn’t just put them in closer proximity to Sam but their entire friend group from college. Max (Savage) is a hustling agent — he reps Ethan — who’s trying to coax his friend into cashing-in/selling-out by writing YA. (Max is in a relationship with Felix, a fertility doc, played by Eichner in a modulated change of pace, tempering his acerbic shtick with grounded maturity; it’s the show’s most successful performance.) Marianne (Park) is a wannabe avant-garde actress who relates better to her pet rabbit than most human beings. Nick (Faxon) is a trust fund wastrel and the ladies’ man of the lot, although said ladies tend to be barely legal.
Almost every “friend” is defined by alienating selfishness or quirkiness save for Lisa, who’s defined by victimization. There’s a performance of collegiality among this allegedly tight-knit band — the dudes greet each other with a ritualistic punch to the balls — but neither the writing nor the acting ever convinces you that they have genuine, lived-in, warm regard for each other. You just don’t feel the friendship. This might be by design. The big idea, I think, is that these folks have outgrown each other but can’t quit each other. Their conundrum serves as a metaphor for the broader critique of nostalgia culture as a retarding force. See: the snarky perspective on YA as stuff for adults who won’t grow up or put down childish things. In an early episode, these themes converge in a sequence in which Ethan, Max, and Nick get blitzed while trying to brainstorm Ethan’s YA project, which devolves into let’s-relive-our-hard-partying-days sadness. Nothing about this scenario is fresh, and the jokes and the point are obscured by acting and directing that tries way too hard to make them. Instead of caring about what Ethan and his buddies want, you feel for Felix, who’s trying to sleep because he has surgery the next morning, and when he comes out to bark at them, you share his resentment too much. There’s a terrible outing when Ethan organizes a vineyard tour getaway that forces the cast to act drunk and do dumb, silly things and no one acquits themselves well except for fuming Felix, who is once again made to suffer his lover’s insufferable friends. Eichner captured my imagination for a different version of this show, a kind of Arrested Development comedy built around Felix, the Jason Bateman-ish Michael shepherding and suffering a community of bats—t retrograde rut-stuck personalities.
The adultery conflict dominates the early episodes of the eight-episode season (I watched the first five and the finale) and serves as the narrative spine for the whole of it. Ethan and Sam know they have to end the affair, but they can’t stop knocking boots. Their addiction to each other is never fully explored, but the acting sells it: Key and Parisse have a legit chemistry. Your rooting interest in the Ethan-Lisa-Sam triangle is titled by another manipulative and poorly handled bit of business: Ethan and Lisa are trying to get pregnant via IVF. There’s poignancy in this storyline, the writers clearly know this journey, and Smulders and Key keep it real and rooted in character even as it gets expressed through madcap comedy; one episode sends them on a zany, one-damn-thing-after-another After Hours-esque adventure to score a treatment.
So why is Ethan earnestly trying to start a family with Lisa — whom he genuinely loves — while carrying on with Sam? That’s an interesting question, and the show knows it’s an interesting question, but it fails to sufficiently investigate the question, maybe because it lacks imagination for it, maybe because it doesn’t want to draw attention to it for fear of making Ethan too unlikable. I love Key, and I love the idea of Key in this part, although there are times when this extraordinary comedian lapses into “Be funny, funnyman!” bits and tics, like a recurring gag in which he resorts to a squeaky voice when he’s anxious. Key also exudes a huge intelligence that he doesn’t know how to turn off, at least not here, and it gets in the way of who the writers want Ethan to be; he’s just too smart to be this stupid and immature.
But the biggest problem with Ethan — and with Lisa and Sam, too — is that the adultery storyline is just a really, really bad idea. The idea diminishes their characters, the writers and the actors don’t know how to make it entertaining, even in the context of anti-hero pop. I would have rather gotten to know these people and watch them struggle with early mid-life issues without the cheating nonsense. Worse, the season resolves the cheating conflict with a cheat — a twist in the second half of the season effectively neutralizes the building ‘what will happen if Lisa finds out’ tension? — and a finale in which everyone is made to realize their mistakes and culpability in each other’s bad behavior, a quality theme that deserves a better story than the one it gets. The finale offers an image of an expensive car that starts slowly rolling toward a swimming pool, and despite the best efforts of the friend group, they can’t stop it from taking a plunge. Its sums up my feelings about the splashy flunk that is Friends From College.