Toxic friendships: ‘Friends from College’ is a surprising misfire

By Jim Sabataso

On paper, the new Netflix sitcom “Friends from College” has a lot going for it: a relatable premise, a proven creative team and a strong cast. Unfortunately, the sum is not greater than its parts.

The series, by husband-and-wife team Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco, tells the story of a close-knit group of college friends as they approach 40 living in New York. That group is populated by a formidable cast of comedic actors, including Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Fred Savage, Annie Parisse, Nat Faxon, Jae Suh Park and Billy Eichner.

As I noted, the premise is an immediately relatable one. Everyone has at some point been part of an intensely tight friend group. Within such groups there is a native language, points of references and inside jokes known only to them. It’s a bond forged in shared experiences that is impenetrable to those on the outside, including significant others who came late to the group. “Friends from College” plays up this phenomenon, and actually does a good job of naturalistically illustrating the exclusion felt by those who weren’t there.

Key plays Ethan, a successful novelist who’s struggling to maintain his status in a literary industry that is becoming increasingly obsessed with books that can be made into movies. He’s also been carrying on a secret affair with Parisse’s Sam since college. This information is unknown to the rest of the group, especially Ethan’s wife Lisa, played by Smulders.

This love triangle takes up most of the show’s narrative and dramatic oxygen in the four episodes I watched, leaving little room for the rest of the group, which, as great as Key and Smulders are, is still a shame. Savage plays Max, a literary agent married to Eichner’s Felix. Both Savage and Eichner are great despite being underutilized. Eichner is especially impressive here in a role that lets the typically caustic comedian exercise a bit of restraint.

Further out from the main story are Faxon’s trust-fund slacker Nick and Park’s yoga instructor/struggling actor Marianne. Both get in some decent comedic beats as they glide through life on their privilege, but it never really amounts to much.

Despite such a game cast, the performances never take flight, due to the largely flat material. The show’s blandness is a surprise given Stoller’s solid comedy pedigree. He has directed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek” and “Neighbors.”

Yet, “Friends from College” never seems to find the right rhythm as it swerves from sitcom slapstick to maudlin drama within the same scene. An episode where Ethan and Lisa are undergoing fertility treatment to conceive a baby is a tonal mess as it tries and fails to be a farce. Instead, Ethan and Lisa come off as selfish and reckless as they make their situation everyone else’s problem.

Indeed, the show’s determination to make its characters unlikeable is its biggest flaw. If this was an deliberate choice by Stoller and Delbanco, they have failed to make it explicit enough for the audience to detect. Shows like “Difficult People,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “You’re the Worst” have succeeded in depicting friends who are nasty to both one another and the rest of the world because, for all their nastiness, they remembered to be funny.

“Friends from College” misses the mark. It’s not funny enough to excuse how unlikable its characters are. If the characters were more self-aware or if the show itself acknowledged their awfulness, things would be far more interesting. As it stands, the poor characterization undercuts the show’s dramatic moments. We’re supposed to have some sympathy for Ethan and Sam — the old lovers who could never quit each other — but it’s hard not to view them as anything but selfish liars.

It’s difficult not to draw a comparison to “Happy Endings,” another ensemble comedy about an intensely close friend group who often behaved badly. “Happy Endings” got right almost everything “Friends From College” gets wrong; it was funny, sharp and, most importantly, it had heart. Where “Happy Endings” left you wanting to spend more time with its characters, “Friends from College” leaves you begging for space.

While some pleasure might be derived from treating this show as a hate watch — indeed, its characters are often so insufferable and wrapped up in their own privilege, they are almost enjoyable to dislike — it’s really not worth the time. Young Gen-X’ers, for their part, might feel a pang of happy nostalgia thanks to the show’s well-curated soundtrack of mid-1990s music. But none of this adds up to anything of consequence. “Friends from College” remains an unlikeable show about unlikeable people.

“Friends from College” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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