It’s a lot less cool to like something that everyone else hates than it is to hate something that everyone else likes. That said, I kind of like Netflix’s new series Friends From College, which is currently sitting at a dismal 23% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Let’s get one thing straight: there is nothing, nothing, nothing new or original to this show. Everything that Friends From College does has been done before, and to better effect — think Togetherness, or Married, or Casual, or Catastrophe, or Divorce. For that reason alone, it’s almost shocking that Friends From College managed to assemble the top-notch cast that it does boast — I’d have thought that the likes of Keegan Michael Key and Cobie Smulders would be off doing something more interesting.
That said, I really don’t understand the abject critical hatred for this show. It’s perfectly fine. It’s only four hours long. It’s pleasant. What more can you ask for from a show like this one? It’s about six people who are, you guessed it, friends from college. When married couple Ethan and Lisa (Key and Smulders) move to New York, they reassemble their old friend group from their Harvard days (and these characters will remind you that they went to Harvard at every chance they get. If there’s anything off-putting about the show, it’s how snootish and wealthy they all are.) The group consists of good-for-nothing trust fund baby Nick (Nat Faxon), other rich person Sam (Annie Parisse), playwright Marianne (Jae Suh Park), and literary agent Max (Fred Savage).
But really the show is about Ethan, Lisa, Sam, and Max. Faxon and Park barely feature into things at all. It’s very odd — they’re billed as part of the six core Friends From College, but they might as well not be on the show.
Anyway, Ethan is having an affair with Sam (who is also married), Max is dating a doctor played by Billy Eichner, and Lisa wants to get pregnant but can’t. Those are the three main storylines in the show’s first season.
Friends From College wants to be a funny show. It isn’t one, really (although there’s a bit in episode seven, involving an experimental production of the stageplay Annie, that had me laughing out loud). Like I said earlier, it’s pleasant. It’s a show about six bad people with mildly ugly personalities, but the actors playing them are always fun to watch, and impossible to dislike. Parisse and Savage in particular deserve praise for elevating their otherwise rote characters into something more human.
There are some fun cameos here, particularly Kate McKinnon as a young adult writer — she’s doing the usual Kate McKinnon weirdness here, but unlike in some of her larger roles, which tend to be defined entirely by their weirdness (ahem, Ghostbusters), she manages to craft an eccentric and interesting character in the few scenes that she’s given. Seth Rogen shows up at one point, playing a college buddy — he isn’t one of the eponymous Friends From College, mind you — referred to almost entirely as “Party Dog.” Rogen is completely unnecessary here, his presence adds nothing to the show and is distracting to the point of annoyance. He likely did this guest spot as a favor to his frequent collaborator and co-creator of Friends From College, Nicholas Stoller. It was a waste of his time, and a waste of a perfectly good movie-star favor on the part of Stoller.
The show is a weird turn for Stoller, who also directs many Friends From College episodes. Stoller’s work tends to be funnier, for one thing, but it also tends to be more… distinct. Friends From College premiered today and already it has been absorbed into the ever-growing mass of adult dramedies on premium cable and streaming services. You could take half of the characters on Friends From College and half of the characters on Togetherness and have them up and switch shows, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Togetherness is a Duplass Brothers show, and this is a Stoller show, but you wouldn’t know it from watching either of them (yeah, yeah, if not for the fact that Mark Duplass is in Togetherness).
Whatever Friends From College is, it is not a bad television series. It is, in fact, a good television series. Entirely unnecessary, perhaps. A waste of everyone’s time and talent, maybe. But evaluated purely on the eight episodes currently streaming on Netflix, Friends From College makes for an enjoyable four hours.