Photo courtesy Netflix

If romantic life partners are supposed to make each other better people, where does that leave non-romantic lifelong friends? They might do some of that on the side, but really, after a certain amount of time and exposure, they’re the people who accept each other’s limitations or even downright shittiness. But when does acceptance turn into enabling? How do two people who have been friends for so long tell when they’re good people with weaknesses, or just plain bad?

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This question is tricky enough, but Friends From College’s Ethan and Sam are in the even more uncomfortable position of being lifelong friends who are also in a sexual relationship. In Sam’s car on the way back from an aborted tryst at her Connecticut country house, after they’ve accidentally killed their friend Marianne’s pet bunny, they’re forced to confront what they’ve done. Ethan protests: They’re not bad people. Sam counters: Yes, they are, and Ethan folds immediately.

This is an insightful moment in the second episode of Friends From College, and it comes right in the middle of some of the episode’s weakest material. The Ethan/Sam affair is already feeling stale after receiving a lot of screentime in the first episode, and the slapsticky chaser to their attempt at country-house sex (involving accidentally setting off the security alarm, a lot of screaming, and a chair thrown through a window in a panic) is more loud than really funny, one of those scenes where the auditory levels of the comedy are supposed to explain why people are behaving with such stupidity. Keegan Michael-Key can sell a lot; I’m not sure if he can sell suddenly throwing a chair through a glass window to stage a break-in without asking his partner in crime (though he does beautifully sell how impressed he is by Sam poking the most rudimentary of holes in his stupid plan). The stupidity continues: Ethan has brought along Marianne’s pet rabbit so he can take Anastasia (pronounced Ana-STA-sia) to the vet, and when they brake the car suddenly during their escape from the country house, the rabbit flies forward and hits its head. All of a sudden, Ethan and Sam are trying to figure out how to replace a rabbit.

It’s a curious thing, the supposed dark comedy of this rabbit death. I see how it could be funny – if, for example, Ethan had a secret dislike of the rabbit, rather than casual neglect, that would morph into guilt over causing its death. It could also work if creator/episode director Nicholas Stoller was bold enough to lean into the accident scene, and make the rabbit’s death a focal point rather than a bit of unfortunate side business. But treated with a kind of sloppy realism, Anastasia’s demise isn’t especially funny, yet it’s something the show still wants to joke around, if not exactly about. The mechanics of secretly replacing their friend’s dead pet bunny feel hollow, like they can somehow turn the actual death into a great punchline after the fact. By the time the episode reverses the turn with its final shot, revealing, I guess, that Anastasia was only stunned and eventually hopped away from her shallow grave, the bad taste has been allowed to linger. (Though I did appreciate the shot of Marianne holding her replacement bunny, a different species with mascara applied around the eyes to make it resemble her missing pet, and eyeing Ethan with unspoken but clear suspicion.)

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It’s really a testament to the second half of this episode, though, that I didn’t dwell too much on the botching of that dead-bunny bit. Ethan and Sam race back to New York to catch that evening’s performance of Marianne’s play, a sorta-gender-swapped version of A Streetcar Named Desire (the characters’ genders remain the same, but they’re all played by opposite-gender actors in drag). They meet up with Lisa and Nick, who have been drowning Lisa’s sorrows over her terrible first day at her terrible new job as a hedge-fund lawyer, which is kinda-sorta why they both show up dressed in costume-shop-level attire. Lisa is also struggling with what it means to be a good person; does working for a douchebag-packed hedge fund, rife with internal sexual harassment cases, erase the good she used to do as a lawyer?

It’s not surprising that the episode doesn’t have any answers, but it does show how people can find brief (and potentially) empty solace in each other’s shittiness. As the group watches this terrible production unfold in a high-school gymnasium, five of the six friends behave pretty poorly as they loudly ask each other questions, shush each other, and, in Max’s case, express honest confusion at the stagecraft on display. This does not make this group especially sympathetic, but it does make them relatable; the bargain-basement sincerity of the play has just the right mix of truth and absurdity (come on, even if it was in a school gym, would a basketball team really take the floor when it was over, presumably after 9 or 10 at night?), and their hapless semi-ruining it is the kind of clamorous group scene that the first episode needed. The affair subplot falls away, at least temporarily, and it makes sense why these people ranging from unhappy to selfish to irritating have held on to each other for so long. They may complain about each other when they break off into smaller pairs and groups, but who else will put up with them?

Stray observations:

  • ’90s track watch: “Don’t Look Back In Anger” by Oasis plays ruefully over the end of the episode and the credits. I didn’t realize when I watched the first episode that a ’90s track watch would be necessary; I just assumed the show had ponied up for Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair” as its theme song. Now I see that it’s not the show’s permanent theme, but there is a clear ’90s indie-and-adjacent rock motif, at least in the first three episodes. These characters haven’t talked about popular music – of their youth or of today – much at all, but considering they’re just a few years older than I am and most of the music cues so far have hit me right in the ol’ high school nostalgia receptors, it makes sense that this would be the stuff of their college years.
  • The show comes out and admits that Nick, Nat Faxon’s character, is a trust-fund kid. I guess that makes sense, and maybe it’ll be explored in a meaningful way, but I have to wonder: Is it that hard to think up six jobs?
  • Cobie Smulders may have one of the more distinctively Canadian voices this side of Mackenzie Davis. She also has perhaps the most unaffected naturalism of anyone in this cast; her fake-voice reading of “yeah, screw him!” when she and Nick joke about her flaky (actually philandering) husband captures something I’ve definitely heard in real life but can’t recall ever seeing replicated on a TV show. Although maybe I just don’t watch enough TV.
  • Another pretty funny bit before the break-in debacle: Sam and Ethan agree that they need to meet at a location where they won’t run into anyone they know. Ethan picks Manhattan’s very own (and real) Jekyll & Hyde theme restaurant. Where they do, in fact, run into someone they know.
  • So is the seemingly still-living Anastasia a copout on top of a blunder, or does it make the kinda wishy-washy approach to her death OK?

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