Photo: Netflix

Friends From College has spent so much time getting into the particulars of Ethan and Sam’s affair, and of Ethan’s flailing literary career, that before “Mission Impossible,” Ethan and Lisa’s quest to have a baby after years of trying wasn’t really at the forefront of the show. There were references to expensive IVF treatments and to their (or perhaps more Lisa’s) ultimate hope to have a baby as they approach 40 (though Lisa is a few years younger), but it played as just one more mounting pressure on Ethan to cut it out with the goddamn affair, already.

“Mission Impossible” dives right in, and though it (like the affair storyline) kinda places the whole “friends from college reuniting” hook off to the side, there’s a renewed focus to this episode that I found refreshing. Maybe it’s just novelty; I don’t recall ever seeing an IVF-treatment montage on a TV show before (though, as I’ve mentioned, maybe I just don’t watch enough TV). But the crisply edited sequence early in the episode, a montage showing the initial excitement over IVF treatments wearing out into exhausting routine, felt like something out of co-creator Nicholas Stoller’s Apatow-produced comedies, in a good way.

That’s not how the episode starts; it starts with a similarly cutting-heavy encounter between Ethan and Sam in a hotel room, followed by Sam’s first visit to a therapist. Her attempt to explain the thing between her and Ethan (she maintains her refusal to call it an affair) doubles, intentionally or not, as an attempt to explain this relationship to the audience. What, exactly, is the chemistry between Ethan and Sam beyond their propensity for ramming into each other with maximum passion? Their non-sexual moments never seem particularly charged, and Lisa has the unfair advantage of being played with the low-key charm of Cobie Smulders, while poor Annie Parisse is stuck trying to find something endearing about Sam.

Once the IVF montage kicks things off, though, “Mission Impossible” becomes both funny and more than a little harrowing. After booking a night in a hotel to avoid giving Lisa her precisely timed final shot during Marianne’s Streetcar cast party (which seems to be attended by more people than who actually worked on or possibly even saw the show), an improbable paper-bag mix-up (Marianne’s party inexplicably has a wealth of white paper bags resembling the one that holds Lisa’s all-important dose) sends the couple scrambling back to Marianne’s – and then over to Max’s intimate birthday dinner with Felix, for advice from the latter about what they can do to salvage this round of very expensive treatment.

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This is pure nitpicking of what’s supposed to be at least a semi-comic situation, but it’s a little odd that Ethan’s dropping and losing of the dose is supposed to be his Freudian slip about a possible ambiguity over having a baby – something he admits as such in the heat of the moment when Lisa confronts him towards the end of the episode. The paper-bag mix-up seems way more like the kind of manifestation of carelessness Lisa sees in Ethan’s drop, especially given the ridiculous, near-maddening care Ethan had been taking with the needles before his overlotioned hands allowed the dose cartridge to slip from his fingers.

But the escalating tension still works. There have been plenty of sitcom episodes based around a mad scramble around town, and Friends From College’s version probably won’t go down as a classic. But there’s a genuine and prickly urgency to this one, and it’s vastly more enjoyable to see Ethan and Lisa working as a team, even when doing so pretty poorly (and with a lot of bickering), moreso than seeing Ethan freaked out by his own ineffable attraction to Sam.

That nagging doubt is still there as Ethan retreats to the “Male Collection” room to provide a sperm sample, but it’s surprising how much more interesting this internal struggle plays as compared to another conversation about how they shouldn’t be doing this and yet they are doing this. If Ethan is going to be the type of dude whose go-to response to a high-pressure situation is to throw a chair through a window – and I admit, I found it funnier as a callback than I did initially – then at least this episode has a kind of mad commitment to this destructive behavior, with Lisa and Ethan in a triumphant clinch before Felix returns to find them having (quite improbably) broken into the prescription-drug area and commandeered the medication they needed. It’s demented and kind of stupid, but unlike a lot of the show’s past frenzies, I understood how the characters found themselves in this situation.

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Stray observations:

  • Marianne has quickly become sort of a catch-all unhelpful oddball character who can be plugged into different situations as a convenience, but Jae Suh Park plays her well enough that I don’t really mind the contrivances. The way she nonchalantly answers Lisa’s question about whether her disgusting fertility tea has ever worked (“not to my knowledge”) is pretty great.
  • Also, the way Marianne’s nuisance of a cast party breaks into a group rendition of Rent’s “Seasons Of Love” made me laugh in recognition. A little too easy, maybe, but I like that even the in-scene music sticks to the mid-’90s theme.
  • Fred Savage has another nice comic grace note as Max, who recognizes the gravity of Ethan and Lisa’s situation, but is also kind of excited by its caper-ish overtones – even though everyone forgot his birthday. He’s a good friend, possibly to a fault.
  • ’90s track watch: Speaking of which: A Cornershop double act, with “Brimful Of Asha” scoring the IVF montage and “Sleep On The Left Side,” bringing the episode home at the end. These are the first two tracks (though played in reverse order on the show) of When I Was Born For the Seventh Time, the 1997 album of the year per SPIN Magazine (sorry, OK Computer!). Fun fact: I own the “Sleep On The Left Side” CD single, and I bought it in large part because one of the B-sides is the Fatboy Slim remix of “Brimful Of Asha.”
  • Another funny detail: Ethan getting the blue screen of death on the masturbation-aid computer at the fertility clinic.
  • I haven’t watched to the end of the series yet – I’m pacing myself – but suffice to say the next episode does not match this one’s high point.

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