Netflix’s new Friends From College seems like it was created on a dare:
“I bet you can’t make an audience hate characters played by beloved TV stars like Keegan Michael-Key and Fred Savage.”
“Hold my beer.”
Though its title and its cast — which also features Cobie Smulders, Annie Parisse, Nat Faxon, and Jae Suh Park — suggest a hangout comedy in the vein of Happy Endings, the actuality of Friends From College (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all eight episodes) is a shrill and unpleasant dramedy about the dangers of maintaining youthful friendships deep into adulthood.
In fact, it’s often barely about the whole group of friends at all, frequently sidelining Savage, Faxon, and Park to dwell on the fact that Key’s Ethan and Parisse’s Sam have been having an affair since their undergrad days, even though he wound up married to college pal Lisa (Smulders) while she has a wealthy, adoring husband (Greg Germann).
Adultery and/or toxic friendships can both be fodder for dark comedy, and Friends From College — co-created by Nick Stoller and Francesca Delbanco — has no illusions about what it is. It’s not a would-be hangout comedy that accidentally stumbled into making the audience find the pals insufferable, but a very intentional commentary on the dangers of valuing your friends over your family, and of failing to grow up because it’s so much easier to fall into old habits with old pals. In any other show, the Germann character (a smarmy investment bro who can never remember the names of any of Sam’s friends) and Felix, the fertility specialist in a long-term relationship with Savage’s Max, would be the irritating characters — Felix is played by Billy Eichner, whose entire acting career is built on playing characters other people have to have a lot of patience for — but here, they’re by design the most sympathetic ones the show has to offer(*).
(*) Marianne, the quirky actress played by Park, might qualify, but she barely has anything to do, outside of a memorable stint as Stanley Kowalski in a gender-flipped performance of A Streetcar Named Desire that the gang attends in the second episode. In general, the more a character is featured, the less you will like them. Early on, Faxon’s trust fund baby Nick mainly offers color commentary on what the others are doing; once he becomes more integral to the story, it’s all downhill for him.