Warning: There are mild plot spoilers for the first six episodes of Friends From College ahead.
Friends From College, Netflix’s new eight-episode dramedy about a tangled, tension-filled group of Harvard pals reunited in New York, has a lot going for it, namely a talented cast — starring the usually charismatic Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele) and Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) as novelist Ethan and attorney Lisa, a married couple who just moved back to New York from Chicago. There's also a promising set up, revolving around complicated groups of oft-dysfunctional adults, which is great when done well (Togetherness, Friends, Friends With Money). And of course, like anyone in touch with the sometimes-crappy person inside them, I tend to relish laughing at shitty people be shitty (Seinfeld, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the aptly titled Difficult People). But it doesn't take long to figure out that something crucial is missing from this particular, all too promising sh0w.
A quick recap: Ethan and Lisa are struggling to settle back into their passive-aggressively competitive, immature group of college friends, as well as with the very grown-up problem of infertility (and fidelity, as we learn in the first few minutes). They’re crashing on a futon owned by Marianne (Jae Suh Park), a single off-off Broadway actress and protective bunny mom who somehow affords a big, gorgeous home and brews nasty fertility teas for Lisa. Then there’s Sam (Annie Parisse), a brash, beautiful, and successful interior designer, with her rich hubby John (Greg Germann). Rounding out the group are playboy Nick (Nat Faxon); Max (Fred Savage), who is Ethan’s book agent and the token gay friend; and his boyfriend Felix (Billy Eichner), who is Lisa and Ethan’s fertility doctor.
Jealousy, resentment, and arrested development-type behavior aside, the series' drama revolves around one central conflict: Ethan and Sam are cheating on their spouses and sleeping with each other — and have been, for 20 fucking years. They used to meet in hotel rooms whenever one was in the other’s city; now that they’re both in New York, they decide to cut things off. Except, that doesn't work — they immediately give up on fidelity and resume their affair.
Now, I'm somebody who only reluctantly gets on board with narratives about infidelity, in the same way some people view gore and violence: if it’s a valuable part of the story — wildly entertaining, emotionally fraught, or plot-advancing — then I’m totally here for it. And there are a lot of ways to make the affair cliché work. Drinking Buddies (Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick) explored the theme surprisingly poignantly, with a healthy dose of humor and realism. Closer (Natalie Portman, Jude Law) gave us a sexy, enrapturing look at a pair of incestuous cheaters. The Affair set a new bar for the archetype by crafting a masterful dual-narrative around it. And the hilarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall, (written and directed by Friends From College co-creator Nicholas Stoller) was peak R-rated humor.
But simply watching two people make a bad decision over and over again is not what makes cheating interesting to watch. The compelling drama of an affair — the entertainment value and the emotional pull — typically arises when we can vicariously sympathize, even if just a smidgen, with the cheaters. (And no, the sometimes funny, sometimes serious tone of Friends From College does not offer a comedic take on an affair, either.) To do that — which is to say to put ourselves in a character's shoes (even if we dislike them) — we need to understand why they're cheating. That means exploring their pasts, vulnerabilities, values, and insecurities — things held by real people with texture and depth.
The problem with Friends From College is that it gives us no reason to relate to or forgive the one-dimensional, utterly unsympathetic Ethan and Sam. The show doesn’t allow us to empathize with them, to stretch our moral relativity. Sure, they're selfish, dishonest people, but the bigger issue is that they're written so shallowly that they don't appear to have even a semblance of inner conflict; an inkling of guilt or regret. We never learn anything to help us emotionally invest in either character individually, or even understand why their relationship exists.
The greatest explanation we get for Ethan’s inability to give up his extramarital dalliances — despite appearing to be in love with his beautiful, successful spouse, whom he is trying to have a baby with — is the fact that Sam was the first person he ever slept with and had strong feelings for, a thrill that evidently hasn’t worn off over two decades of fucking. As for Sam, she appears to simply be bored with her husband and hung up on her chemistry with Ethan. And it doesn’t help that their respective spouses are painted one-dimensionally as well. Ethan's wife Lisa is treated as a helpless, unknowing victim — up to a point, anyway; Sam's husband John, an adoring but oblivious ass.
What's frustrating is that outside of the doomed central plot point, there are things to enjoy here. There are well-written, funny scenes, including sketch-style comic riffs by Key, amusing subplots (a drunken wine tour of Long Island involving copious amounts of shitty wine), and a couple of entertaining (if totally unrealistic) madcap sequences. In addition to good performances all-around — and the brilliantly deadpanning Billy Eichner's standout role as the resident Responsible Adult — there is a scattering of fantastic cameos: Kate McKinnon as an eccentric, wealthy YA maven; Seth Rogen as a fellow Harvard alum nicknamed “Party Dog”; and The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz as a douchey colleague of Lisa’s. The storyline about Lisa’s infertility and her and Ethan’s struggles with IVF is, for the most part, handled surprisingly well, with both humor and heartbreaking poignancy. And the finale is a well-executed exercise in the shit hitting the fan.
But in the end, the good stuff is drowned out by the lame affair drama. Like Ethan and Sam's marriages, this ship was sunk for no good reason at all.
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