Updated: Sep 24
I am a self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive person. I frequently knoll items on desks and tables, I return almost everything to its place immediately after using it, and I just don’t feel right unless I let a YouTube/Hulu/Netflix video run to completion before being added to my “watched” list. So when I started watching Netflix’s Friends from College and didn’t enjoy the first episode, I wanted to give the second episode a chance. And after that episode was over, well, I was already two episodes deep in an eight episode run. It is extremely difficult for me to step away from a series or film because I always have a deep-seated desire to see what happens to the characters, even if I can’t stand them. And boy, can I not stand the characters in Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller’s Friends from College. Not only are the characters unlikable, but the format and design of the show is nonsensical and the writing is subpar. Friends from College oversells a group of college friends who are entering their 40’s, but can’t quite leave their Harvard years behind them; what the show can’t crack is the balance between unlikability, humor, and pathos. Friends from College is the type of “comedy,” that begets a misguided understanding of the comedy genre while also promoting poor character development and unchecked privilege.
Even at its core, ignoring both the flaws in character design and progression of the story, Friends from College doesn’t produce the level of self-awareness needed to warrant comedic results. Films and television programs that feature characters behaving badly only truly thrive when the characters have nonsensical means of employment, maintaining a level of absurdity to not break the veil of the comedy. Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Office are three prime examples of understanding this delicate balance. Elaine and George from Seinfeld are employed by seemingly reputable companies spearheaded by silly, but not mean nor completely unprofessional, management. The Gang from Sunny, work at a bar called Paddy’s Pub, (which, in itself, becomes a living, breathing microcosm of degradation - read: funny), helped kept afloat by Frank Reynolds, the “father” figure who actually was fairly wealthy before rejoining his children and experiencing a disgusting mid-life crisis. And Dunder Mifflin in The Office, is a paper company run by goofy employees who still do their jobs while engaging in, usually, mostly harmless hijinks. While watching these three comedies I have never had the opportunity to not believe in the circumstances; even at their most unbelievable, the worlds in which these characters live are so funny and fully realized that the plot structure makes sense. And if it doesn’t make sense completely, the humor of the situation carries the weight of disbelief. Friends from College is unfortunate in that, during incredulous moments, it doesn’t have the comedy safety net to catch its fall.
The characters in Friends from College fail to meet the very specifications the title of the show implies: that they actually are, or ever were, friends at all. Ethan Turner (Keegan-Michael Key, suffering from severe Key and Peele withdrawal) is flailing at the beginning of the series when he and his hedge fund lawyer wife, Lisa, (the only friend-to-watch, Cobie Smulders) relocate to NYC for her new job. This relocation reunites their entire friend group, but throws a wrench in the affair that Ethan has been having with Sam (Annie Parisse) for the past twenty-odd years. While five members of the friend group graduated from Harvard in the same class, the dynamic between Sam and Lisa has always been rife with competition, dating back to when the group first met “Froshie” Lisa. Both Ethan and Sam attempt to call off their affair during the run of the series, but can’t get over the animal attraction they feel towards one another, perhaps being the only two friends that make any sense at all during the run of the show. They may not be very friendly to one another – constantly jeopardizing each other's’ marriages and families – but at least it’s understood why they choose to spend time in each other’s company.
The rest of the group are filled out by whispers (although they try to be shouts) of people: literary agent Max (Fred Savage), trust-fund hooligan Nick (Nat Faxon), and semi-vapid yogi Marianne (Jae Suh Park). Aside from physical attractions, none of these characters have anything in common, other than their alma mater and my disbelief that they remain employed and housed. If the show would have decided to focus on the group dynamic outside of their professions, then perhaps they could have better mined their psyches. The writing, however, emphasizes and is restricted by the characters’ archetypal professions. Max’s main goal throughout this first season is to help Ethan write his YA werewolf novel. No, scratch that; Max’s main goal throughout the first season is to make sure that everyone loves him, no matter how spineless and obnoxious he becomes. Max is so desperate for acceptance (which he already has) that he loses his boyfriend Felix (an exquisitely utilized Billy Eichner) in the process.
Marianne, on the other hand, is such a free spirit that once her “man-friend” proposes marriage, she quickly dumps him. Marianne is the biggest puzzle of the entire series. I could not for the life of me, understand why Marianne is friends with any of these people. She is a yoga instructor who spends her free time writing, directing, and starring in gender-bending remakes of popular plays. None of her friends enjoy her terrible renditions produced out of a high-school gym, and they frequently poke fun at her behind her back. They don’t even necessarily take her seriously to her face, and I can’t imagine they ever did. Or if they used to humor her free-spirited ways during college but now outgrew her, where and how do they draw the line for accepted behaviors?
At least Nick, the last friend, seems to be accepting of each friend’s neuroses. As an unemployed trust-fund adult, he is the epitome of college pt. 2. He sleeps around, he experiments with drugs, and his days bleed into his nights during his pursuit of numb debauchery. That is, until Ethan and Lisa return to the city. See, Lisa and Nick used to date too, falling into that, “all college friend groups are incestuous” trope. Lisa, who comes across as an actual human being no doubt thanks to Smulders’ performance, unknowingly becomes the smelling salts under playboy Nick’s nose. They begin to rely on each other for emotional support, especially because Lisa remains in the dark on Ethan and Sam’s ongoing affair, but is subconsciously tapping into the emotional abandonment in its wake. But even Lisa and Nick fall into the trap of despicable acts when they end up in bed together, not once, but over and over and over again while Lisa is on a business trip. It is refreshing that Lisa morally hits rock bottom after the act of adultery, but it is a bit disappointing that this had to be Lisa’s flaw.
As a woman, I feel like I fuck up in much more interesting and divisive ways. I cannot sing FX’s You’re the Worst’s praises enough: it excels at, and raises the bar for, depicting humans at their worst while also deeply humanizing them. Friends from College abysmally misses this opportunity to better explore the complexities of a failing marriage. While Ethan and Sam are carrying on their affair, Ethan and Lisa are trying to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization. In episode four, we see the couple working together to get into the rhythm of the daily, self-given shots necessary to prepare Lisa’s body for the eventual extraction of eggs. In this rare moment of genre-swap for a drama, I began to feel empathy for these characters, especially when towards the end of the procedure, Lisa reveals her torso, bruised and sore from the reality of in vitro. When the time comes for the final and importantly-timed shot, Friends from College becomes a comedy again, and the bag with the contents of the shot becomes confused with a bag of various take-out sauces. Almost jeopardizing the entire procedure, Lisa and Ethan confront their issues of miscommunication and whether or not they’re ready for a child. Ethan admits he only wants to be a parent because Lisa does, and the IVF ends up not taking, sending Lisa down the very real road of depression. Eventually, Lisa decides they need to take some time apart, but I hated that she took the detour of ending up in another man’s bed. The show had the chance to deeper inspect the intricacies of a collapsing marriage but took the easy way out including a scene of Lisa and Nick “comically” fucking all day. Snore.
Ultimately, I’d be much more intrigued by Friends from College if it was a drama with hints of comedy instead of the inverse. Okay, so Lisa works for a bunch of man-bros who routinely whip out their genitalia during conference calls. Huh. And when Ethan becomes uncomfortable, which apparently happens every single day, he impersonates various celebrities and can’t speak in a normal voice. That guy’s an accomplished, award-winning novelist? Lastly, how many times have I, or you, watched scenes of adults getting into drugs and shenanigans with little to no payoff? There are just too many desperate attempts at guffaws without any meat on its bones for me to take this as a comedic success. Friends from College is that “friend” at the party who thinks they have a story to tell, when really you heard it already from Stacy down the hall on the second floor who has a DVD player and the wicked comedic timing. Don’t get me wrong, I clearly wanna hear more stories, you just gotta have something to tell.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.