Here’s where it crosses the line from a little too much to way too much.
There’s a lot that’s “too much” about Friends From College. Too much time and attention given over to the Ethan/Sam affair. Too much comic mania in Keegan-Michael Key’s performance as Ethan. Too much terrible and often irrational behavior to write off as merely unlikable or unflinching.
Here’s what I find “way too much” about Friends From College: The point in “Grand Cayman” where the show decides that actually, pretty much everyone in this six-person friend group is in love or lust with at least one other person in that friend group, if not more (except Marianne, a character who might be genuinely interesting or funny with a crush, or as a crush object).
I mean, on paper it makes sense. What are tight-knit, too-close-for-their-own-good friend groups if not expressions of a bunch of people being kind of in love with each other, and maybe also themselves, or at least a younger, sexier version of themselves? But Friends From College winds up literalizing this dynamic to such a degree that the friend group seems more like an extension of these stupid crushes than the stupid crushes are an extension of the friend group. Put another way: Are any of these people actually friends? People who like each other regardless of whether or not they get to fuck?
Ethan and Sam, a charisma-free and critically chemistry-low dalliance I’ve already spent plenty of time on, is a starting point. But “Grand Cayman” also reveals – unless I missed it earlier, which is entirely possible – that Nick and Lisa used to date. I was already cringing a little at the way the show clearly set up Nick and Lisa’s honesty and ease with each other not as a function of genuine friendship but as a hint of possible (if laid back) romantic chemistry. Imagine if their attraction was allowed to stay unspoken, even ambiguous! Now it turns out that’s not even a question: These two used to date. That is, after all, the primary way that people are allowed to have any lasting affection for each other on this show.
This is revealed (or reiterated? I’m going to go ahead and blame the show for my complete lack of memory over whether this was previously stated or implied) when Lisa, staring down the barrel of a sure-to-be-unpleasant trip to the Cayman Islands with her hardcore bro work colleagues, jokingly invites Nick along, and he jokingly accepts, and suddenly they aren’t joking anymore. Lisa makes this joking-but-not-joking offer in part because she’s been leaning on Nick as a comfortable confidante, and in part because she strongly suspects that something is up with Ethan and Sam. Plus, Sam and Ethan are off on a nostalgic Harvard visit at the behest of Sam’s stepdaughter (whose Harvard interview was blown when Sam insisted the family flee the scene upon realizing the interviewer saw her kissing Ethan in the previous episode), to which Sam has invited Max, to pretend it’s a research trip and not “nostalgia tourism,” as Max puts it, capped with extramarital sex.
Lisa, too, has the instinct to use the friends as buffer, albeit after the fact. After Nick agrees to join her, she sends a group email inviting everyone along, knowing full well no one else will take her up on it. And though Nick doesn’t seem to have accepted this offer with anything in mind (though he does prioritize it over meeting his sorta-girlfriend’s parents), he goes with the flow when Lisa abruptly initiates sex. And then some more sex. And then some more sex after that, in one of those raunchy-comedy montages showing a bunch of different sex positions. This is played for laughs, I think, but it’s not actually funny; it’s just people screwing a lot. (Though I appreciate the drippiness of the sweat, not quite at MacGruber levels, but closer than most sex scenes.)
But the show isn’t done retconning its underdeveloped friendships into sexual desire. After an afternoon and evening of nostalgia-touring, Max drunkenly confesses-not confesses that Felix always thought that Max had a thing for Ethan. It’s very much played as an awkward overshare that probably has some truth in it, and as something that “explains” Max’s loyalty to Ethan all too clearly. It gives their friendship over these past bunch of episodes a sadder dimension – in exchange for cheapening the rest of their relationship. Again, on paper, this could be interesting: How often in popular culture do we see a gay man pining for his straight male friend, even if only in passing? But on this show, it means about half the group’s pair-offs involve romantic feelings, and the other half of the group’s pairings involve almost no feelings at all (picture Nick and Max hanging out together, or Marianne and anyone else).
It’s possible that this is exactly what Friends From College wants to do, and that its writers luxuriate in the rich irony of showing how these people aren’t actually friends at all, and coast through those fake friendships on the fumes of old crushes. But if that’s the goal, it’s a pretty thin one for a show of such bizarre, demonstrative muchness.
On top of which: This episode is not especially funny. Nick and Lisa have sex, Lisa regrets it, and Nick gets hurt. Lisa hurts herself physically, quits her job, and earns the sorta-respect of her horrible colleagues. Worst of all is the attempt to sell the (maybe) end of Ethan and Sam’s affair as a bittersweet occasion. I don’t even like Counting Crows very much but I can’t say this episode’s final stretch especially earned the use of “A Long December” – or even its wistful regard of Sam’s stepdaughter Chloe and her youth, because the show has to contrive a hotel-room party (boarding school has apparently gifted Chloe the ability to assemble a chill 25-person gathering at her hotel room more or less at will) to make its point. I get the sense that the showmakers feel like the Harvard nostalgia, the changing status quo, and the criss-crossed sorta-love affairs will, in their totality, add up to something surprisingly moving underneath all of the garbage behavior: a lament for lost youth and the inexorable passage of time.
It doesn’t happen. It’s too little, and it’s too late.
- This was the worst episode yet of Friends From College, so let’s keep it positive with some stuff that I did, indeed, like in this penultimate installment!
- When Ethan and Sam sneak into Ethan’s old dorm room (or was it Sam’s? Just kidding, who cares!) – at night, creepily enough – there is a legitimately great background sight gag where the room’s rightful occupant enters in the background, silently rolls her eyes at the adults mooning about their lost youth, and exits.
- Key may not be finding the dramatic outlet he’s looking for on this show, but he sure can mime the hell out of a werewolf trial.
- Marianne watch: We find out from Sam and Ethan that she has a new show about to go up that is “Annie, but the entire thing is whispered,” and with an old man playing Annie and a young girl playing Daddy Warbucks. The calm disdain of the way Ethan susses out this reversal got a big laugh from me.
- ’90s track watch: I addition to “Long December,” the episode tries to simulate a triumphant, rueful note by ending on Lisa’s quitting and Liz Phair’s fantastic “Never Said.” Nice try, show! At this point, you’d have to end the season on a montage of Marianne going about her daily business set to the title track from Whip-Smart to really win me back.