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.
For that matter, we’ve seen plenty of great comedies built around people of questionable likability, from the Bluth family to the Always Sunny gang to Larry David. The problem isn’t that the Friends From College are all irritating and corrosive to the world around them, but that Stoller and Delbanco’s main approach to generating laughs out of them is for EVERYONE TO YELL AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE. Multiple times per episode, something goes wrong — often, but not always, involving the threat of Ethan and Sam’s affair becoming public — and the response is inevitably a collection of panicked shrieks that goes on and on and on and on and on. (Ironically — but also appropriately if the creators are deliberately trying to upend expectations — Felix is by far the most subdued character, even though Eichner traditionally works at top volume.) Whereas the protagonists of other anti-hero comedies tend to be awful in clever or creative ways, none of these people are even good at being bad — are in fact frequently startled to realize how bad they are — so they just melt down and scream, even as they’re unwittingly hurting themselves, each other, and even innocent bystanders. (Among the low points: Ethan inadvertently causing injury and property damage at another college friend’s wedding because he’s jealous of the presence of Sam’s ex-boyfriend, played by guest star Seth Rogen.) It’s the comedy equivalent of crawling over broken glass in order to get to a meal of broken glass.
The actors involved are so talented, and so fundamentally appealing, that they can’t help but be charming on occasion. Max tap dances in one episode, for instance, and rocks out to Hanson’s “MMMBop” in another. Moments like those aren’t in there by accident, but to show why the group can’t entirely see how unhealthy their relationships are with one another; the problem is that I kept wishing they were right to think this way, because the brief glimpses of the sincere hangout version of the show felt so much better and more watchable than what Friends From College actually is.
The fifth episode finds Ethan organizing a friend trip out to the vineyards of Long Island to cheer up Lisa after an unsuccessful IVF cycle. Everyone seems happy to be on a party bus, drinking wine, and cracking jokes, but every time the trip seems on the verge of being a success, Lisa will bring everyone down with a graphic reference to her infertility. This, unfortunately, is Friends From College in a nutshell: theoretically, you expect it to be nonstop fun, but the reality is perpetually uncomfortable for everyone, whether they’re on the show or watching at home in the stubborn belief that a comedy with this much talent can’t possibly be this grating this often.
It can be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org