Despite familiar stars like Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders and Fred Savage, this is one group of friends you won’t want to spend time with.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to say that Netflix’s new comedy Friends From College is a bad show, because surely it does none of the superficial things that we expect from a comedy series.
It’s very rarely funny and the characters are all unappealing, even though they’re played by actors who, in most cases, have almost always been tremendously appealing elsewhere. It veers wildly in tone, gunning for sentimental and emotional moments at exactly the moments its characters are least sympathetic, and then following those with sequences of broad farce that feel cribbed from a dozen better (and worse) sitcoms.
The process of watching Friends From College is not a traditionally pleasant one, and when reviewing a show, that’s usually a recipe for a negative write-up, probably very negative, one accusing the show of wasting its stars and wasting its good faith and wasting my time.
But what if that’s completely intentional?
What if Friends From College is an elaborate meta-commentary on toxic TV sitcom friendship and, in fact, an elaborate meta-commentary on the entire decaying process of watching TV in a post-television age?
Created by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and wife Francesca Delbanco, Friends From College is about six … well, it’s all in the title, darnit. Writer Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), Ethan’s wife Lisa (Cobie Smulders), Sam (Annie Parisse), Max (Fred Savage), Nick (Nat Faxon) and Marianne (Jae Suh Park) all went to Harvard together. Now approaching their 40th birthdays, their lives haven’t gone exactly as they imagined they would. Ethan’s books are critically admired, but don’t sell. Lisa has a new job she hates and she can’t get pregnant. The other four characters have issues, too, but they aren’t all that important. Oh, and Sam and Ethan are in a long-term affair that only grows more complicated when Ethan and Lisa move to New York City, allowing for much more time with the friend group.
Since television, the cathode ray tube box itself, was introduced, the marketing narrative was always that it was a technology you could bring into your household, into the fold, in contrast to cinema-going, which was an external process. TV, initially pitched with its bulky cabinet exterior, took a central place next to the hearth, became a part of the family. Not coincidentally, the families depicted on TV were universalized so that your family and the family on the TV could meld. The same has always been true of groups of friends on TV shows. Just as the television set is a piece of your own friendship circle, you’re supposed to want to be friends with the people pretending to be friends on your TV, at least for weekly get-togethers.
Even a show like You’re the Worst, which introduced all of its characters as deeply flawed and seemingly unlikable people, desperately wants you to like its characters and, as the Sunday Funday phenomenon has proven, wants you to think that hanging out with them would be awesome. You wouldn’t want to hang out with Walter White or Don Draper, but comedies play by different rules.
The more alienating a group of onscreen friends turns out to be, the more alienated the audience watching them will probably be, and what are TV ratings if not a representation of how many viewers are friends with a TV show?
Leave it to Netflix, with its lack of publicly expressed interest in ratings, to air a show that not only doesn’t want you to be friends with the onscreen group of friends, but dares you to hate them in the most self-reflexive way possible. Leave it to Netflix, a platform designed to be viewed on your computer or phone or tablet, a platform designed to enhance alienation from your television set and from conventional weekly modes of viewing, to air a show about characters you wouldn’t want to spend eight episodes with, much less 150 half-hour weekly episodes.
Friends From College is all about characters joined by an isolating nostalgia that viewers, even including those of us who are exact contemporaries with the characters, can’t share, which runs counter to a television business that is more and more about nostalgia — see Netflix’s Fuller House or GLOW or Stranger Things — that we can share collectively. So many of the jokes between the six heroes are about experiences they had without us, and in no time at all the characters who are the most sympathetic are the ones with the most hostility toward the core group. On a show like NBC’s Friends, the gang had to be romantically incestuous because everybody coming in from the outside felt like an interloper to the friends (and viewers) on the inside. In Friends From College, Greg Germann’s John, Sam’s much older husband, and Billy Eichner’s Felix, Max’s doctor boyfriend, represent character types that are typically adversarial on shows like this, but instead come across as voices of reason.
Or maybe they just come across as voices at a reasonable volume? And that’s one of many places you come to suspect Friends From Collegeis involved in a strange counter-intuitive game, because who casts Billy Eichner as the soft-spoken and reasonable guy on a show in which every other character is constantly yelling for no reason? Who casts master impressionist and sketch role genius Keegan-Michael Key as a guy who does horrible and annoying voices whenever he gets nervous, which is constantly? What show about people on the verge of 40 casts Fred Savage, whose Kevin Arnold was perhaps the best TV chum of our childhood, as a character with an almost excruciating need to please that bursts out in dancing and, like everybody else, entirely too much shouting?
The yelling and chaotic deviations of tone are so frequent that if you’re watching it, the two instinctive responses are, “Do they not realize that this isn’t working at all?” or “Is the inability to make any of this work at all the intended goal?” For NBA fans, it’s a difference between losing games because you’re bad or tanking games as a strategy. Trust the process.
In this case, the process is (or could be) one of taking what are effectively sitcom characters — and grating, playing-to-the-back-row-of-a-studio-audience multicam characters at that — and forcing them into an uncomfortable interaction for the real world. The characters inFriends From College are constantly doing things that sitcom characters would do — there are several versions of “adult spring break,” several visits to bad plays or songs from bad musicals, at least one trip back to the old alma mater — only to get smacked in the face by adulthood. The show and the characters try to wedge the sitcom schtick into the dark reality of maturity and vice versa, and the show and the characters fail. There are effective beats of drama in Ethan and Lisa’s fertility saga, and they’re constantly undermining or getting undermined by comedy. The fictional characters, actual human life and the overall world of Friends From College are often working on three different levels, which may be exactly the kind of show that Friends From College is aspiring to be.
There are times that the series tips its hand at the tiered disconnect. The sixth episode uses a vintage sitcom setup — an old friend from college’s wedding — as a funhouse mirror through which to view how the friend group sees itself and how everybody else sees them. It also uses Seth Rogen, one of many high-profile guest stars, to show how it’s possible to still hold onto your college persona and take it out of mothballs for special events, but it’s not something you want to live with all the time. It’s here that you remember the show isn’t calledYour Friends From College. That would be inclusive. [The most popular new show on TV wasn’t called That Is Them for a reason.] This is all, “Those guys over there? The ones you don’t want to hang out with? They’re friends from college.” And then we’re spending eight episodes with them. Why would you want to do that? Subversion!
The ultimate hand is tipped in the eighth episode featuring a guest appearance by Chris Elliott, star of one of the greatest anti-comedy comedies in the medium’s history, Fox’s Get a Life. Elliott’s series was a surreal take on how the things that happen in sitcoms could be hilariously disturbing and unpleasant when the sitcom was conscious of its own conventions.
Is Friends From College taking that distancing formula one step further by eliminating the “hilarious” part and just leaving the unpleasantness?
Is Friends From College a knowing show about the decline of the communal television experience and the limitation of the cable antihero model when extended to comedy?
Or is it just a bad show?