After the success of Netflix Originals like Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we were treated last week to the streaming site’s latest comedy offering, Friends from College. Focussing on the oh-so-original subject of middle-class straight people turning forty and having marital issues, this show wastes its gift of a starry main cast – one which includes Keegan-Michael Key (of Key and Peele) and How I Met Your Mother’s very own Cobie Smulders. Over the course of this eight-episode season, we follow the development of the main characters’ relationships (or lack thereof), and, unfortunately for the naïve binge-watcher, it is genuinely as dull as it sounds.
The show begins with friends from college – three guesses as to the inspiration behind the title – Ethan (Key) and Sam (Annie Parisse) in bed together, as they continue their affair of twenty years, despite both having married other people over the course of this period. The scene ends with Ethan revealing the fact that he and his wife Lisa (Smulders) are moving back to New York, prompting Sam to end their romantic meetings… for now. From this comes a reunion with the rest of their former Harvard friend group, featuring amateur thespian Marianne, publishing agent Max, and, well, Nick. Nick doesn’t do much, but he has a lot of money and sleeps with young women, so clearly he deserves to be a part of the main cast. The show follows the group as they grow back together, with a road trip, a wedding, a birthday, and an assortment of other equally-clichéd plotlines.
The main problem with this cast-dependent comedy is, ironically, its characters. They are terrible people. Seriously, they are just the worst, and yet they seem too wrapped up in their own selfish pursuits to even notice. The most unbearable of the group is Ethan, who moves from one act of immorality to another – and yet the writers rely on him for the majority of the show’s humour. This backfires, as his loathsome behaviour makes it impossible not just to laugh with him, but even to laugh at him. Over the course of the series, he smashes multiple windows, lies about killing a friend’s pet, has sex in public, repeatedly cheats on his wife even as she undergoes the pain of IVF treatment, ruins a wedding in a desperate bid for attention, and does countless other awful things that are too ridiculous even to mention. His main ‘quirky’ habit seems to be a silly voice that he does several times per episode, which comes across as less funny and more irritating, to the point of inciting a desire to knock him out (you may think I’m exaggerating; I’m not). What’s worse is that the gang rarely show any remorse, and don’t seem to recognise how awful their own friends are.
The main problem with this cast-dependent comedy is, ironically, its characters.
Thankfully, the full season comes in at around four hours long, so it’s by no means a big commitment; having recently binged all five seasons of Orange is the New Black, however, Friends from College definitely felt like a step down in terms of characters. This show doesn’t just pale by comparison; it looks like a child’s drawing taped to the wall of the Louvre. This might seem ever-so-slightly catty, but you haven’t met these characters.
To be fair, this series isn’t all bad. Comedian Billy Eichner (recently nominated for an Emmy for the hilarious Billy on the Street) plays main character Max’s boyfriend Felix, managing to provide moments of dry humour when all else fails. The show also benefits from a few strong guest stars, most notably Kate McKinnon as a sex-obsessed author of YA fiction, who manages to light up her episode. In all honesty, her cameo was probably the only reason that I continued watching, in the hope that she might come back (spoiler alert: she didn’t). Seth Rogen is also there, which is, you know, alright.
Predictably, though, a few good guest stars are not enough to save a season. It isn’t even just the writing or character development that causes problems; even the directing has its odd moments. At the start of a holiday scene in a later episode, for example, we cut to a sudden, choppy montage, which is in no way fitting with the show’s style, making the programme feel inconsistent and careless. The show is also just not funny. Given its length and lack of depth, the genre that Friends from College would really fit is comedy, and yet the laughs are very thin on the ground. Honestly, there may have been some good lines in there, but I probably missed them due to my frustration at what a monumental arse Ethan was being at the time.
Despite all this whining, I would say that if you do have a free afternoon and don’t fancy watching anything heavy, Friends from College might be an appropriate choice – though I would point you in the direction of the now-cancelled HBO series Togetherness instead, which tackles similar themes far more successfully. If you’re a critical viewer, though, maybe give this series a miss – unless you enjoy criticising shows, in which case, knock yourself out.