The films of Nicolas Stoller have, in one way or another, dealt with issues surrounding relationships and arrested development, and where the two intersect. So I guess it’s somewhat fitting that the new Netflix series from the Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors director should traverse in that familiar territory with Friends from College, which seemingly borders on anti-comedy over the course of its 8-episode season. Here is a collection of characters whose lives all intersect years after their college days are over, and each character pushes the limits of likability more and more as the series progresses. Friends from College is not downright hilarious, but yet it’s not exactly awful. It’ll be interesting to see how the general public responds to a series that feels confrontational in its ensemble of unflattering characters and even more unflattering situations.
From the start, Stoller and co-creator Francesca Delbanco test the limits of what’s likable with Sam (Annie Parisse) and Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) preparing to have sex. Their dialogue clues us into the fact that this is a relationship that dates back over 20 years. However, while both Sam and Ethan are married, they’re not married to each other. Their ongoing affair will be tested when Ethan and his wife Lisa (Cobie Smulders) move back to New York, with Ethan working on his writing career and Lisa taking a job as an attorney at a mutual fund.
Ethan and Lisa move back and stay on the couch of their friend Marianne (Jae Suh Park) as they try to settle in. They attend dinner parties with their other friends from college, Nick (Nat Faxon), a trust fund party boy, and Max (Fred Savage), a gay man living with his partner, Felix (Billy Eichner).
All of these characters lives intersect in a variety of ways, and not all have to do with illicit affairs. Sam and Ethan try to obscure their ongoing affair from their significant others, leading to some awkward encounters with Sam’s husband (Greg Germann). Meanwhile, Lisa and Ethan are trying desperately to have a child, and consult Felix, who is a doctor, about alternative treatments to bring about a pregnancy no matter the cost. At the same time, Ethan is a professional crossroads and Max, also his literary agent, pushes him to write young adult novels. Throughout all this mounting tension between this old group of friends, Lisa finds a kind ear to vent to with Nick, the two often meeting for drinks.
Over the course of its first season, Friends from College just piles complications upon its characters, and very little gets resolved before the final episode. What seems so odd about the series is just how unfunny it often is, with Stoller and Delbanco leaning heavily on the dramatic aspects of the story. So many of the situations throughout all eight episodes of Friends from College feel as if they’re building towards a cringeworthy, hilarious climax that never comes. More interestingly, the majority of the series’ strongest comedic moments come from some high profile cameos by Kate McKinnon, Seth Rogen, Chris Elliott, and Ike Barinholtz. The eponymous friends of the show are each selfish and scheming. That being said, the show doesn’t reward the characters for their awfulness, instead each of the characters have to face some tragic consequences for their actions.
Watching the first season of Friends from College was an interesting ride. It never even approaches the level of comedy that I was expecting from Nicholas Stoller, who directed all eight episodes, as well as the robust cast of comedic talent. And yet I was never underwhelmed by the lack of comedy because the dramatic angles to the show work fairly well, and the nostalgia that drives these self-destructive relationships is emphasized by the show’s ‘90s era soundtrack. I’m left to wonder if viewers will be able to tolerate these solipsistic characters long enough to pick up on its themes on the dangers of living in the past and how it can warp the present. Friends from College is almost like a piece of experimental television, testing the audience on how it reacts to an array of unlikable characters and situations that don’t culminate in big laughs. It’s not a great show by any means, but it’s too unique in its abrasive approach to be completely written off as a failure.