The first episode of Netflix’s Friends From College begins with a man and a woman engaging in some semi-explicit sexual slapstick that wouldn’t be out of place in co-creator Nicholas Stoller’s movies for producer Judd Apatow. In comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him To The Greek, The Five-Year Engagement, and Neighbors, Stoller practices that familiar brand of empathetic coming-of-age raunch, with a little more willingness to have his characters engage in actual sex acts than the movies Apatow directs himself. More recently, Stoller has branched out into family films, working on the newer Muppets films as well as Storks and Captain Underpants.
Stoller returns to more adult concerns via the ensemble of Friends From College, a show he co-created with novelist Francesca Delbanco (the pair are also a married couple). The half-dozen members of the show’s friend group are a little older than the Seth Rogen or Jason Segal characters Stoller has written in the past – pushing 40, rather than circling 30, and seemingly none the happier for it. For example, the man and woman in that first scene are Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and Sam (Annie Parisse), who are both old friends from college and each other’s ongoing extramarital affair. Sam describes it to Marianne (Jae Suh Park), another member of the friend group, as a “stupid college hookup that never ended.” She doesn’t want Marianne to call it an affair.
But that’s what it is, and that’s the somewhat bizarre story hook grafted onto the appealing premise of Friends From College. The show is sort of about what happens when a group of longtime friends is fully reunited in the same city after spending many years with more physical distance between some of them. But it’s also about what happens when two of those people have been occasionally sleeping together in the intervening years, and now find themselves in much closer and more dangerous proximity.
It’s not an uninteresting twist on the old-friends-reunite formula, but by the end of the first episode it’s crowded out a lot of those actual old friends in favor of infidelity dramedy (or, as it’s known by people of a certain age, “second-tier Woody Allen bullshit”). When Ethan and Lisa (Cobie Smulders) move back to New York after years away (and putting an end to Ethan and Sam’s dalliances, at least theoretically), Sam overcompensates by incessantly talking about how great it is, buying the couple a bed as a lavish housewarming gift (for the house they don’t yet own, as they’re crashing with Marianne), and inviting them to dinner with her husband (Greg Germann), who like Felix (Billy Eichner), partner of Max (Fred Savage), is not an original member of the gang – nor even an honorary one, really.
It’s the awkwardness embodied by an uncharacteristically low-key Eichner (who is so far from his persona that he gets to mutter “so loud” at other characters here!) and an uncharacteristically non-smarmy Germann (he’s still kind of smarmy – his character is kind of an insensitive tool, but comes across sort of sweet just by virtue of caring about his wife more than her college-borne drama) that feel most vivid and lived-in – moreso than the actual friendships that are supposed to be in play here.
Pilots are notoriously rough going for comedy, but this first episode does a particularly clumsy job establishing or even really hinting at the dynamics of the full group. One bit of shorthand announces that the three guys all try to nut-punch each other as a gag – funny enough, but also seemingly cribbed from any number of books, movies, TV shows, or pamphlets about goofy bro friendships. There’s a nice bit of veiled hostility to the way that Sam calls Lisa “froshie” – and the way that multiple characters offer their opinions about just how veiled that hostility is by that supposedly affectionate nickname (Lisa was a freshman when she met the rest of the group, all seniors at the time). But the episode focuses so intently on the mechanics of the Ethan/Lisa/Sam love triangle – which Lisa has no idea exists – that there isn’t a lot of room for, say, Nick (Nat Faxon), who, like Marianne, appears very much on the periphery of the group that is supposed to embrace him with open arms.
Maybe that’s supposed to be an intentional byproduct of six people who started out as theoretical equals growing apart in both location and status. But it’s hard to tell this early – and the focus remains on Ethan, Lisa, and Sam in the second episode, at least. What the first episode winds up sharing with some Judd Apatow films is a world of privilege that tries to paint itself as relatably middle-class. Ethan is a “failed” novelist, in that his work has merely been critically acclaimed and festooned with any number of literary prizes (ably name-dropped by Stoller and Delbanco, who also wrote the episode); Lisa is a lawyer with a new hedge-fund gig (though her misery in returning to this world is chronicled soon enough). Sam is clearly rich. Max is Ethan’s agent, and while he has to break the news that his in-progress novel isn’t commercial enough to work, he’s also happy to nudge him in the direction of more profitable YA. And even the less outwardly successful Marianne and Nick don’t appear to have much financial difficulty – they’re the well-to-do TV writer version of less successful, where you don’t really have to worry about money, but you haven’t achieved the same fame and/or fortune as your peers.
A well-developed ensemble, a sense of near-lifelong friendship, and economic nuance might be a lot to ask of a 30-minute pilot episode. It’s not, however, asking much that this show be a little funnier. That’s often Apatow’s saving grace, even as he fudges his version of hardships, and while Stoller is clearly after something darker than The Five-Year Engagement here – darker in tone, darker in subject matter, and darker in color palette (he also directs the episode) – it’s hard not to notice that, so far, hanging out with these friends isn’t particularly funny (unlike, say, New Girl) or particularly enlightening (unlike, say, Girls). But there’s a broad range of promise, from the way Key is allowed to play a little bigger and broader than the rest of the cast – Ethan breaks into vaguely Jim Carrey-ish wacky voices when he’s agitated or nervous – to the fact that this particular age group isn’t often seen on TV without families or criminal activities in tow. Shows like New Girl, Girls, and Friends all nudge their characters toward an endgame that usually involves some combination of marriage and babies and gainful employment; though Friends From College isn’t baby-packed, it is set sometime after those other shows would pack it in. I’m hoping that Stoller and Delbanco will take advantage of that relative novelty.
- Hi, I’m Jesse, and I’ll be posting daily reviews of Friends From College for your enjoyment. Please, semi-binge along! Even if we all wind up hating the show, it’s only eight half-hour episodes. Or, the length of one Judd Apatow movie. Zing!
- Actually, I don’t care at all that Apatow lets “his” comedies – the ones he directs, writes, and/or produces – go over the much-vaunted 90-minute mark. Plenty of comedies work great at a brisk 90 minutes and plenty of comedies work when they sprawl out a little more. That doesn’t have a lot to do with Friends From College, except to note that despite my misgivings so far, I may not find these people as insufferable after four hours as others might.
- With so many shows being produced, it’s not so unusual to bring together an ensemble with such a storied background in television, but I think the College cast still bears a roll call as their experience might have prepared them for a show about friends growing apart: Cobie Smulders played another “new” addition to a long-term friendgroup in How I Met Your Mother; Fred Savage navigated complicated social relationships throughout The Wonder Years (man, Kevin Arnold was a real dick to Paul, wasn’t he?); and Keegan-Michael Key did plenty of Key & Peele sketches with a sociological edge. Nat Faxon has also been on a lot of shows.
- Of course they all went to Harvard. Of course Stoller did, too. I get the impression that it’s difficult for Harvard-trained writers to imagine what it must be like at some other, less Harvard-y institution.
- Sneak preview: The next episode of Friends From College is funnier than this one.