tv review

Friends From College Tries Too Hard, But Still Delivers Some Laughs

Friends From College. Photo: Barbara Nitke/Netflix

You’ve met characters like the ones on Netflix’s Friends From College hundreds of times on TV and in movies. They’re well-educated, approaching middle age, self-involved, still fully resistant to adulting, constantly finding ways to get themselves into hot water that quickly escalates to boiling, and holding tight to friendships formed during their dorm-room days. But unlike the gang from, say, The Big Chill, their reunion isn’t temporary and focused around a funeral for Kevin Costner. Once Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and Lisa (Cobie Smulders), his wife and fellow member of this tight-knit group of Harvard grads, move back to New York, every day is an ongoing college reunion, one that involves clandestine extramarital affairs and occasionally acting stupid on party buses during wine-tasting treks through Long Island. None of the confused, regressive men and women on this show know how to quit each other, even when all signs suggest that maybe they should.

Especially when they assemble en masse, the characters on this half-hour dramedy, which starts streaming Friday, are the kind of people who get seated at a huge table in the middle of a restaurant and then proceed to irritate everyone dining in the vicinity. They’re loud, overdramatic, immature, and often inconsiderate to anyone who isn’t part of their inner circle. “You’re a different person when you’re around them,” Felix, played by an appropriately dialed-down Billy Eichner, tells Max, his partner, portrayed by Fred Savage. “I don’t know who that person is. I don’t really like that person.” You can see where he’s coming from, for sure.

Nevertheless, I found myself often enjoying Friends From College, despite the familiarity of its narcissistic-grown-ups-struggling-with-self-imposed-ennui story line. It helps that the people playing these semi-deplorables —particularly Key, Smulders, Savage, and Annie Parisse, who get the most screen time out of the ensemble — are wry and funny. Key, in particular, gets to put some of his old sketch-comedy skills to use, especially when his character falls into his habit of talking in ridiculous voices when he gets nervous. (I fully expected him to drop “the terries” into conversation at several points during these eight episodes. Spoiler alert: He does not.)

Sensibility-wise, Friends From College fits pretty snugly in the space where a Woody Allen–Judd Apatow Venn diagram would overlap. The Apatow part makes sense since the series was co-created by Nicholas Stoller — who wrote for Apatow’s Undeclared before going on to direct such Apatow-produced films as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement — and his wife, author Francesca Delbanco, both of whom, for the record, went to Harvard. Like the movies and TV series made by those aforementioned filmmakers, Friends From College wallows in the confusion that sets in when people pause, look around at the existential path they’ve been on for decades, and wonder if they’ve been taking footsteps in the wrong direction the whole time. “I love my life,” Parisse’s Sam tells her therapist. “I just wonder sometimes what would happen if it got blown to smithereens and I got to start all over again.”

Sam and her friends are pretty good at blowing up stuff, whether that means engaging in long-term adultery (Sam, who is married to a non-Harvard alum, has been sleeping with Ethan for ages), IVF treatments that go sideways (Ethan and Lisa are trying to have a child, despite his extracurricular activities outside their marriage), or highly misguided attempts at creating literature for young adults. (Ethan is an author of literary fiction who gets persuaded by Max, his agent, to try YA. Their brainstorming session for his first book involves a lot of terrible ideas and even more cocaine. Yeah, it goes a little over the top.)

While each episode clearly wants us to enjoy the well-worn banter between these old pals, there’s also a constant push to raise the stakes of the calamities that the characters must endure. Hence, when Ethan and Lisa have to inject a crucial IVF shot at a specified moment, Marianne (Jae Suh Park, who, like Nat Faxon, is one of the more underused members of the friend group), decides to have a party at her apartment, where Ethan and Lisa happen to be crashing. They try to quickly execute the injection in the bathroom anyway, until Ethan drops the vial on the floor, which means they have to track down Felix (he’s their fertility doctor, because literally every part of these people’s lives is only separated a degree or two from their friends at Harvard), who’s trying to have a nice birthday dinner with Max, and then they have to try to break into a pharmacy, and … well, eventually, someone’s throwing an object through a glass window for no good reason.

Like the people on this show, it’s a little much. And yet, as I mentioned, sometimes the charms work exactly as they were orchestrated to, like during a wedding episode when Savage’s awkward and oblivious Max insists on giving a toast that starts off dreadfully, yet somehow swings back toward inexplicably triumphant.

“Orange is the new bridesmaids!” he quips, referring to the ludicrous amount of self-tanner splashed all over the bride’s attendants. The invited guests roar with laughter, while Ethan voices confusion — “Bridesmaids isn’t even a color. I don’t understand the anatomy of the joke” — and Lisa expresses what passes for support in this dysfunctional pseudo-family: “This is awful, but I’m just so happy for him.”

One of the things that Friends With College explores, at least subtextually, is the degree to which nostalgia can drive people’s decision-making processes and even their own identities. The actions of all the characters convey how much they’re still stuck in their college years, and the musical choices underline that point further. In every episode, early-to-mid-’90s songs from artists like Pavement, Liz Phair, Oasis, and Mazzy Star pop up, subtle reminders that the same tunes that provided the soundtracks to their university experience are still, 20 years later, the backing tracks of their lives.

The palpable weight of the past and nostalgia is a theme to which I, and probably many other viewers of a certain age, can undoubtedly relate. It resonated with me enough to make me keep watching Friends From College, and to even connect to some of it, while also wondering how much better this series might have been if the volume on its characters and situations had been turned down just a little lower.

Friends From College Tries Too Hard, Still Delivers Laughs