At least Friends From College has this down pat: The “gang’s all here” regression that occurs when any circle of old friends, close relatives, or old friends treated like close relatives reunites—and the alienating affect that can have on people from outside the circle. Old jokes are rehashed, old grudges dredged up, old songs played on the stereo, and since it’d take so much effort to fully catch an outsider up, the effort isn’t made. In the new Netflix comedy from husband-and-wife duo Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco, that big chill (if you will) is articulated early on by the significant others elbowed out of the series’ core group of Harvard alums. When author Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and attorney Lisa (Cobie Smulders) move to New York to reactivate the Voltron of pettiness and enabling that was their campus clique, Friends From College conveys, with a singular clarity, how these people all behave differently when they’re around one another. It’s one thing to demonstrate how their bond might be repellent to other characters on the show. It’s quite another to manage that with the people on the other side of the screen.
In charting the ways things between Ethan, Lisa, Sam (Annie Parisse), Max (Fred Savage), Marianne (Jae Suh Park), and Nick (Nat Faxon) have changed and/or stayed stubbornly the same, Stoller and Delbanco craft a fitfully funny cringe comedy. They grant this murderers’ row endless opportunities to go bananas: Donning bejeweled novelty T-shirts while getting wasted on a tour of the justifiably unstoried vineyards of Long Island, or giving a disastrous-toast-turned-crowd-pleasing roast at a wedding. Every time the soundtrack cues up a nostalgic favorite—be it the Pavement singles that bookend the first season or the Oasis and Mazzy Star hits that underline moments of poignancy—you can practically hear them say, in unison, “I haven’t heard this in forever.” Ethan, an acclaimed writer attempting a transition to more lucrative literary avenues, develops an odd habit of throwing chairs through plate-glass windows. Friends From College is often as loud and riotous as big-screen Stoller efforts like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, and Neighbors, and it feels especially of a piece with those last two, with its un-romanticized depictions of long-term commitment and responsible, job-holding adults running around like freshman on welcome week.
And just like a pack of 18-year-olds newly separated from their parents and getting their first tastes of relative freedom, there’s little corralling these knuckleheads. The most successful sitcoms with unpleasant protagonists—the modern-day spawn of Seinfeld that include Happy Endings, You’re The Worst, and Difficult People—benefit from structure and tempo. On the small screen, this type of comedy requires rigor. The characters of Friends From College are sloppy, and Friends From College is sloppy, its slack sense of pacing always making it seem like you’re hanging around these people for longer than you actually are. And although the cast looks great as a list of names, their individual styles don’t really play well together. It feeds the subtext that they’re all on separate paths (and have been for a long time), but it also leaves a talented ensemble with no common ground beyond a bug-eyed freakout.
Highlights occur, instead, individually. Smulders serves as a steady eye in the middle of the tempest, her even-keeled approach to Lisa paying off when she has to play stormier emotions down the line. Ethan’s a drip who’s nursing a 20-year affair with Sam (one of the more obvious signs that these characters struggle with letting go), but his nervous tic of launching into accents and impressions is an amusing use of Key’s sketch-comedy virtuosity. Fred Savage only got one season to be driven into falsetto-voiced hysterics by the courtroom clowns of The Grinder; here, he gets to have an epic, wide-angle breakdown in a fast-food parking lot.
But it always feels like Friends From College could be exerting a little more effort. Maybe it’s supposed to be a reflection of the characters’ collective lack of imagination, but shouldn’t a crew of Harvard graduates that includes a published author, his literary agent, an actor, and a lawyer be more creative with the ways they refer to themselves and their inside jokes? These ones round each other up with calls of “friend group,” egg Lisa on to do an old party trick known simply as “seal thing,” and hang onto “Froshie” as a nickname for their youngest member. (That nickname, at least, is singled out by Marianne as unimaginative and past its sell-by date.) And while it’s equipped for the type of tragically awkward encounters and faux pas that are to cringe comedy what necking in the woods is to a slasher movie, the jokes just aren’t there for Friends From College. When Billy Eichner, as Max’s fertility specialist boyfriend, injects a little snap into the proceedings with a line like “Someone said I was too rigid on a comment card,” you’ll root for him to flee this swarm of narcissists and reunite with quippier narcissists whose adventures run 22 to 24 minutes a pop on Hulu. And if they can avoid dragging their grievances and infidelities out for an entire season—rather than talking about talking about them episode after episode—all the better.
Early on, Friends From College carries promise. Things start taking an inventively weird turn in episode two (Ethan’s idea of a “discrete” rendezvous point with Sam turns out to be the horror-themed eatery Jekyll & Hyde) and episode three boasts a very funny script by Faxon’s old Married boss Andrew Gurland. But then the affair starts to bog things down, and the questions of “Are these people truly friends anymore” start to be replaced with “Why are they risking perfectly good lives for one another?” The fond memories of the cast’s past work wind up being a lot like the fond memories shared by their characters. Those things are in the past, and that magic isn’t going to be recaptured here. The songs are sweet as ever, though.
Reviews by Jesse Hassenger will run daily from July 14 through July 21.