So we reach the end of the line for Season 1 of Friends From College, a cringe-comedy soap disguised as a bold experiment in unlikable but fascinating characters. Though I’ve communicated my displeasure of the soapier elements of the show – particularly its late-season tendency to ascribe any and all character motivation to sublimated romantic feelings that themselves are mostly unexplained – I haven’t really thought of it as a comic soap before, and maybe I’ve been failing to accept it on its own terms.
After all, “A Night Of Surprises” puts its intent to produce revelations right there in the title, and is so eager to get to these revelations that it contrives a situation that manages to somehow feel like something the show has already done in its previous seven episodes. For Sam’s 40th birthday, her husband throws her a lavish dinner party at their house in Connecticut (which I only just realized is their actual home, not a country house). So this is: a get-together at Sam’s, which happened back in the first episode; a lavish party with lots of guests many of our main characters don’t know, like the wedding in the sixth episode; a poorly-timed celebration, like the party bus in the fifth episode; and a look at turning 40, which has been on characters’ minds throughout the series (and in fact happened to at least one of them earlier on). I’m sure there was some imagined symmetry in the first and eighth episodes both winding up at Sam’s house in Connecticut, but it also feels a bit like the show is retreading old ground well before it reaches middle age.
The best, and probably not cruelest but perhaps most directly embarrassing of these revelations comes pre-party, during a delirious opening sequence set to “MMMBop” and then a slowed-down – not menacing movie-trailer cover version slowed-down, literally the song itself played at a lower speed – version of the same song. In this sequence, Max allows himself to fantasize about the fame, fortune, and acclaim that will be coming his way as he helps to usher Ethan’s first Wolf Trials book into the world, and I love the way the show’s generally semi-hip alt-rock song choices give way to the pure overproduced late-‘90s bliss of Hanson when Max is really feeling it. Then, when Max “learns” of a book with the exact same premise that his agency is already handling, the song comes back to around to soundtrack his flashbacks of how the book was developed more or less in front of Max for ages as he dove into (and wash out of) his relationship with Felix. Clearly he absorbed just enough to encourage Ethan to produce what is essentially a ripoff of an upcoming YA blockbuster.
There’s a certain cruelty to this twist, depriving Max and Ethan of one thing that they seemed to be doing moderately well (in their way), and especially revoking the thought that Max might be a good agent. But the twist of the double-Hanson montage works, and like a lot of Max business this season, there’s a demented stupidity to his misfortune that never crosses the line into demonstrative assholery, Ethan-style.
But then it’s off to Sam’s, and large chunks of the rest of the episode are second-rate drama as much as second-rate comedy. Ethan wants to come clean to Lisa about his affair, and Sam and Ethan bicker in whispers (and then not-whispers, right outside the bathroom where Lisa is fixing herself up?! Why?!) about it. They both seem wrong, and not just because they don’t seem to understand how space and volume work, and not even in a way that makes the show seem fair-minded in a balanced assessment of their relationship. They both just seem, as ever, kind of dumb: Ethan for wanting to blurt out a confession at Sam’s well-attended birthday party just to beat Lisa to the accusation; and Sam, for wanting to put off the confession more, and also argue about this at her birthday party instead of, say, convincing Ethan and Lisa to go have this conversation elsewhere.
On top of this, the show adds further contrivance in the form of a mentalist played by Chris Elliott, whose vagueness nonetheless inspires enough panic for Lisa, of all people, to blurt out her own confession about her affair with Nick (who arrives at the event improbably engaged to one of his younger girlfriends). It’s an elaborate yet weirdly unsurprising way to get characters blabbing.
Yet there are plenty of glimmers of the series that could have been. The writers do have a talent for turning gags that seem like goofy throwaways into runners or later callbacks, something that fits the show’s slapsticky portrait of misguided nostalgia. In this vein, the previously referenced Monica Lewinsky musical, which we now see as an early example of how bad Ethan and Max are at creative collaboration, turns into one of the show’s best conceits, as Ethan and Max – again each other’s best/worst cheerleaders – insist that it would be a riot to perform at Sam’s party (not unlike Max’s unwanted toast at the wedding; even in its more inspired moments, the show sometimes feels like it’s ripping itself off). The disintegration of the number, from ill-fitting mussed wigs to a last-minute call to abort the song and turn it into a simple, too-early performance of “Happy Birthday,” is cringe comedy done (mostly) right, rooted in the characters’ silly infatuation with very old ideas. Also, the background sight gag of catering chefs scrambling to produce a birthday cake in the wake of “Happy Birthday” is pretty hilarious.
But the funny-sad buzz doesn’t last, and oddly enough the spell is broken not just by the insistence on marital drama (in which Lisa notices Ethan’s quickness to forgive – and the audience notices that he seems to be hesitating on whether to tell her about his own, much larger-scale cheating after all) but by blatantly turning a gag from earlier in the episode into a sort of deus-ex-machina plot point. Marianne blithely teaching one of Sam’s children how to drive is a sorta-funny, sorta-dumb throwaway moment that the show rushes back to too quickly, providing a reason for Sam’s car to end up in a swimming pool.
But is it a reason? What, really, does it have to do with what we’re watching, except that it’s a big slapstick moment for the whole cast to assemble around, so everyone can hear Lisa tell a still non-confessing Ethan that she thinks they need to take a break. After a lot of build-up, the season ends with kind of a shrug, and also kind of a punt to a second season that my not happen. Will they separate or divorce? Will Lisa ever learn about the affair? Is Nick still pining for her? Will Ethan and Max save their careers?
It takes a fair amount of confidence to push those questions off to another season and assume people will care. Friends From College has never lacked in confidence; that might be a Harvard thing. It’s also not lacking in skill; as much as I’ve complained at great length about this program, I didn’t hate the experience of watching every episode, and almost every episode had something I really liked (see below). But there is an uncomfortable feeling of coasting on bad ideas – as if no one wanted to speak and say, you know what, basing most of this show around infidelity as committed by an especially manic Keegan-Michael Key character is not working. Maybe it feels like a little myopic to have a show with six different characters all approaching 40 and only one who actually has kids (not that everything needs to be about parents, but that’s a distinguishing feature of late 30s and early 40s: lots more of your peers have kids than they did 10 years earlier). In that sense, this show is true to itself. It zeroed in on something that didn’t completely work, and it stuck with it for what wound up feeling like a long damn time.
- Bad expository dialogue watch: After the car is in the pool and Ethan’s career is screwed, the show realizes Lisa hasn’t told anyone she just quit her job, so it has Ethan say to her, very gratuitously and oddly phrased: “At least we still have your income.”
- Marianne watch: She’s relegated to comic relief even in her own revelation, about how Ethan replaced her pet rabbit Anastasia way back in episode two. She finds Anastasia hopping around the grounds of Sam’s sorta-mansion, and her anger at Ethan results in two of my favorite lines of the whole series. First, her announcement about Anastasia: “This is my rabbit, not the imposter rabbit you tried to pass off on me, whom I love now too.” Then, her kiss-off to Sam, who burdened her with the secret of her affair: “I’m going to take Anatasia to the bedroom, where she will eat most of your shoes.”
- ’90s track watch: “MMMBop” is covered above. (Man, Netflix must be shelling it out for the music supervision here.) And in the tradition of the show picking great songs that sometimes feel a little alt-rock on-the-nose in their quality and their thematic resonance, here’s Pavement closing out the series with another track from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain with Pitchfork’s Official Best Song of the ’90s, “Gold Soundz” (which is a great song, but also: oh, come the fuck on, Pitchfork).
- So are we getting a Season 2? Netflix has been both pretty generous with renewals, and quicker with the axe of late, now that they’re building up a massive content library. I do think it’s probably presumptuous to assume that everyone hated this show as much as TV critics. Netflix has succeeded by programming (TV, anyway) to just about any audience, and I imagine plenty of people have been checking out this show with Key, the kid from The Wonder Years, and the non-Mother from How I Met Your Mother, and not hated what they saw, or at least saw part of themselves in it (especially if they went to Harvard and/or are horrible), or got caught up in the soapier elements. I have to say, because of my curiosity over what the creators actually want to do with this thing, I’d watch Season 2. But I think it’s pretty likely I’d find myself quitting in the middle of it.
- Thanks for reading, nerds!