NOTE: This review may contain mild spoilers for the debut season of, “Friends from College.” That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet watched the series, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Nicholas Stoller has found plenty of success both writing and directing for the feature film comedy world. Originally breaking out with his 2008 directing effort, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Stoller has since gone on to generate plenty of likable, profitable comedies for Hollywood, including writing and directing the two standout Neighbors movies, writing Disney’s two cinematic reboots of The Muppets, and most recently, contributing the script to the surprisingly solid Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. With those successes under his belt, Stoller is now exploring a new frontier with his first Netflix series, Friends from College, which he both co-created with Francesca Delbanco, and directs episodes for.
The premise of Friends from College initially feels like it treads familiar ground, being yet another Netflix comedy series about socially stunted people who have trouble acting like functional, level-headed adults. Some Netflix sitcoms have really made that work, most notably Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None and BoJack Horseman. Friends from College however sadly doesn’t join those prestigious ranks, at least not in its first season. Granted, BoJack Horseman had a flawed, problematic first season as well, before it went on to become one of Netflix’s most brilliant and poignant sitcoms in its subsequent two current follow-up seasons, so maybe Friends from College could salvage itself if it’s renewed for a second season. In Season One though, the show ends up being a real misfire, squandering its highly talented cast on an overly bitter set of storylines that makes their characters far too unlikable and difficult to invest in.
I can’t emphasize enough how great this lead cast is too. The six titular friends from college include: Keegan-Michael Key as awkward, yet creatively gifted writer, Ethan Turner, Cobie Smulders as Ethan’s professionally successful, yet thin-skinned wife, Lisa, Annie Parisse as well-meaning, but emotionally self-destructive pampered housewife, Sam, Jae Suh Park as eccentric starving artist, Marianne, Fred Savage as upbeat, but oblivious homosexual, Max, and finally, Nat Faxon as self-centered trust fund baby, Nick. After attending Harvard together twenty years ago, this bunch ends up fully back in each other’s neighbourhoods once Ethan and Lisa move back to New York in hopes of starting a family, and that leads to these fortysomething friends heavily regressing in terms of their behaviour when they’re together. Immediately though, the show suggests that Marianne and Nick at least are permanently regressed to their twentysomething selves anyway, so that immediately makes their characters feel the least remarkable.
There are some added wrinkles to this ensemble as well. Ethan and Sam have been having a twenty-year affair since college, unbeknownst to their spouses, and that naturally gets complicated when they no longer live apart. Marianne also lets Ethan and Lisa crash on her couch, despite seemingly not having any money (this isn’t really adequately explained, especially when Max or Nick would make far more sense to host them), and Nick also used to date Lisa. Some of these character arcs hit interesting notes and others kind of fizzle out before the season is done, but that’s not really the major issue with Friends from College. As I said, the major issue with Friends from College is that its titular six personalities are all selfish jerks when it comes down to it, and they’re still selfish jerks by the time the season is done. Had the show committed to being a dark comedy, that might have been fine, but it doesn’t. Instead, Friends from College tries to slip in social commentary, a desire for pathos. and other such big ideas, which only further highlights how unlikable its lead characters are.
Now, as I mentioned, BoJack Horseman, which explores some similar themes as Friends from College, also had a rather flawed first season, often for the same reason; BoJack was too unlikable, and thus too difficult to invest in. You can have a comedy about unlikable characters, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too by asking the audience to feel sorry for them when they so blatantly refuse to learn from their mistakes, and have far too little redeeming qualities. Rather than take after the example of BoJack Horseman’s far superior second and third seasons, Friends from College instead frustratingly takes after the design of Will Arnett’s other Netflix ‘sitcom’, Flaked, another series about shitty people being shitty people, and ultimately being unrepentant about the fact that they’re shitty people. As I’ve stated more than once, Flaked is not a great show, and it doesn’t work because its characters are too irredeemable and unlikable, which in turn kills the humour when the series subsequently expects audiences to invest in their growth and positive development, or lack thereof.
One thing I will say in favour of Friends from College though is that it’s at least funnier than Flaked, even if it’s still heavily trailing many other Netflix sitcoms in terms of laughs. I’d say that, in its current first season, Friends from College hovers around the level of fellow Netflix sitcom, The Ranch, where the humour is passable, but misses more often than it hits. That’s really beneath what these actors can do, especially when you get some standout guest appearances from beloved comedians like Seth Rogen and Kate McKinnon at certain points in the season. Both Rogen and McKinnon provide some good bright spots, but even they can’t wholly salvage what are ultimately overly bitter scripts that hit the drama and tragedy too hard, while not providing enough strength to the laughs that viewers originally came for.
Considering the talent involved, and some of the better thematic ideas that are scratched at, if not properly developed, in Friends from College’s first season, I wouldn’t say that this show is dead in the water. Like I said, it’s possible that a sophomore season could really turn the series around, and make it far smarter and funnier, much like what happened with BoJack Horseman. For now though, there’s no real pressing reason to binge through Friends from College’s first season, especially if you have yet to check out 2017’s many better and funnier new Netflix shows, including One Day at a Time, Santa Clarita Diet, A Series of Unfortunate Events and GLOW. Even if you’ve exhausted those other options, you have Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later and Atypical around the corner for Netflix, so Friends from College will be succeeded by yet more promising sitcom options very soon.
I hope that Friends from College gets a second season, since there’s clearly untapped potential in this show. As it stands though, it’s tough to imagine why these titular people suffer each other’s company in the first place at times, let alone why we should suffer it in turn.
- Superb lead cast that do what they can
- Great guest appearances from comedians like Seth Rogen and Kate McKinnon
- A few inspired ideas about social regression
- Too much ham-fisted misery across the storytelling
- Almost every character is way too unlikable and/or self-destructive
- Doesn't effectively explore most of its thematic ideas