Nicholas Stoller’s new Netflix series is a great showcase for its cast, wrapped inside a terrible excuse for one.
As television continues to mimic cinema, every movie genre is being translated to the small screen. Most of them seem to adapt pretty well, but the one that now clearly doesn’t work is the college friends reunion genre. To be fair, it’s not that successful on the big screen anymore either, as such movies tend to look like modern-day rip-offs of The Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Big Chill (and in the case of 2014’s About Alex, the “homage” is pretty blatant). Even with a brief, eight-episode Netflix series, the sort that tend to play like stretched-out movies with an enclosed narrative and little to no need for a second season, one couldn’t sustain a premise of coupled-off old friends in the country being dramatically nostalgic.
Friends From College is not exactly that premise, but oh how it wants to be so badly. The series, which is eight episodes long and on Netflix, is about a group of three men and three women who went to Harvard together and now, 20 years later, are hanging out again. In the first episode, two of these friends from college, the now married couple of Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and Lisa (Cobie Smulders), move to New York City where the rest already reside. For most of the show they’re staying with Marianne (Jae Suh Park), sleeping on her fold-out couch, which is a good way of always making sure at least a few of the members of the group are under the same roof. Otherwise, there are a lot of trips out of town, whether just to the suburban mansion of Sam (Annie Parisse) or as far away as Grand Cayman Island.
Even in the city, there are a lot of excuses to lump these busy professionals (plus a do-nothing trust funder played by Nat Faxon) together. A wedding here, a play opening there, as well as the conveniences of having college friend Max also be a publisher who works with novelist Ethan, and Max’s boyfriend (Billy Eichner) be the doctor overseeing Ethan and Lisa’s attempts to conceive a baby through IVF. For some reason a show about friends can’t just have that be the only premise anymore, and we can’t just accept groups to just regularly hang out together at a central apartment or bar or restaurant. There has to be an overarching storyline, probably involving an affair, which is one of the laziest fallbacks for a plot about grown-ups there is (an affair is also integral and catalytic to Netflix’s new series GLOW, disappointingly).
Most of the negative consensus on Friends With College is that it wastes the talents of its cast, which also includes guest stars Kate McKinnon as a famous YA author and Seth Rogen as another, less-tight old friend from Harvard. That’s not true at all. As in the case of many a friends from college reunion movie, your interest in the ensemble can make or break your enjoyment of this series. They hold your attention through the individual moments. Even while the prosperous Ivy League characters are hardly relatable to a lot of viewers, their actors constantly deliver enjoyable scenes and situations. Their talents are never squandered, and in fact Smulders in particular gives a noteworthy performance throughout. Eichner is also terrific in a more serious and subdued role than we’re accustomed to from him.
It’s the overall setup and story that is the big problem. Friends From College hinges so much on acts of infidelity for its unnecessary through-line of plot and buildup of drama, and it leans too much on the idea of its main characters being old friends who can’t stop thinking about their times together back at school. Yet there is no substance to the nostalgia factor (at least us Gen-X viewers will appreciate the ’90s music) nor to whatever issue there may be with friends from college still being friends as adults. Both Eichner’s character and Sam’s husband (Greg Germann) constantly comment that it’s pathetic the six main characters are still getting together. Why? Because they sometimes have too much fun? Because they reminisce too much about a timely musical they wrote back in the day (writing a musical is apparently what friends did at Harvard instead of forming a band)? Maybe because most of them turn out to have previously dated or had a crush on another member of the gang, and still have feelings or lust for them, and they have no self control. Yeah, probably that.
If you can get over the frustrating plot and premise of the show, which was created by Harvard alums Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and his wife, Francesca Delbanco, based on their own lasting relationships originating at college, there are a ton of clever and hilarious parts that are worth the four-hour investment. One episode involving an all-night, drug-infused brainstorming session to devise a young adult novel idea is one of the most entertaining half hours of a comedy series I’ve seen this year. Stoller, who also directed every episode, is just incapable of totally failing his audience with a project. Not everything on TV or streaming has to be brilliantly constructed, and the fact that Friends From College works so often when it’s not trying to be something big is proof of that twofold.
The show should return for another season, if only so it doesn’t have to look like a long segmented movie, plus the fact that the cast deserves it, and it ought to ditch any central narrative it might have continued with. Or allow more central plots to mix in (more story and character development for the non cheater characters, particularly Savage and Eichner’s, please). Friends From College could be more like Married (with which it shares Faxon and single-episode co-writer Andrew Gurland), a series with just enough of a narrative thread while also being quite episodic and more casually enjoyed because it was light yet perfectly executed and not part of a binge-encouraging TV platform. Also, it needs to lose the “from college” reunited friends angle. Nobody cares. It can be just a show about friends, period.