‘Friends From College’ is the most generic excuse for a sitcom imaginable
Summer 2017 will long be remembered as the moment people became truly cynical about Netflix output: Gypsy was very poorly received (unfairly so, in my opinion) and next week’s Ozark is unlikely to fare much better. Sandwiched between these dark dramas is Friends From College, seemingly the result of a blank cheque handed by the network to co-creator Nicholas Stoller and an ensemble led by Keegan MIchael-Key and Cobie Smulders. After, presumably, months of brainstorming, this team have failed to conceive of a sitcom premise of any distinction or originality, and so we’re left with Friends From College.
‘A six-person group of men and women in perpetual adolescence, living in New York, getting involved in sexual/marital escapades while discovering their inner emptiness’: how does that ring a bell? There isn’t a single line of dialogue in this 8-part season not before heard on a dozen funnier, more colourful comedies. It’s only in rare moments that Friends From College even feels like a comedy, so much of each episode is dedicated to the characters wallowing in self-pity and being generally rude and horrible. The most horrible is Ethan (Key, whose shtick can either be really fun or really not), an arrogant author forced into penning YA who’s cheating on his wife Lisa (Smulders, delightful as ever) with old flame Sam (Annie Parisse). Also hanging around to participate in the hijinks are Max (Fred Savage), Marianne (Jae Suh Park) and Nick (Nat Faxon).
In what little time they’re given to build their characters, Savage, Park and Faxon are the most impressive performers on the show. Suh Park’s previous credits include ‘Person #4’ on an episode of Community, so this is a legitimate breakthrough for her, and she’s a lot of fun. One of the few upsides of a second season would be an increase in action for Marianne. Fred Savage is a master of transitioning from amusing hysteria to melancholy in seconds, and he’s given ample opportunity as Max experiences issues with his boyfriend, a shockingly reserved Billy Eichner.
Other notable guest stars include Kate McKinnon — really playing against type as a crazy, kooky character — and Seth Rogen, in a role that’s somehow even less likeable than all of our leads combined. Rogen is, you see, the ‘Party Dawg’, and he howls and barks every chance he gets. It’s often hard to tell the level of irony with which Friends From College approaches this sort of behaviour: are we supposed to sympathise when Ethan breaks into another impersonation of 1994 Jim Carrey, or when the gang rent a party bus and swing on the stripper pole?
With a set-up more suited to a 22-episode-per-season NBC comedy, Friends From College wastes none of its tight 8 installments establishing a Ground Zero for the characters; they are never just hanging around an apartment, there’s always something happening. There’s a wedding episode, a trip to the Cayman Islands, a disastrous birthday party: never any space for us to figure out the relationships on simple terms.
It’s sitcom language written backwards, and it’s impossible to invest deeply in any character beyond our prior expectations of the actors: My sympathies for Lisa were channelled from my love of Robin Scherbatsky; the same applies to Eichner’s character. That is not how good television is supposed to work. Friends From College has all the evidence of a show produced by contractual obligation that, due to strong talent involvement, happened to turn out okay. It’s harmless, because the faces are friendly and the situations familiar. Risks are not taken, ground is not broken. When Netflix dedicate an equal budget to the often breathtaking Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s infinitely superior take on thirtysomething New York living, it’s hard not to resent that Stoller etc. really aren’t trying that hard.
Nobody asked for another story of unrealistically well-off white people lying to one another. Save that for CBS, amiright ;)