Netflix’s new show Friends from College longs to be many things- primarily, a study of how relationships from one’s youth are still in one’s youth, and how regressive they can be at peak mid-life crisis. It is also attempting to explain these characters in a span of ten episodes (spoiler alert: it fails) and tell jokes that, ironically enough, go on for too long.
The premise of the show involves an affair between Ethan (Keegan Michael Key of Key and Peele) and Sam (Annie Parisse), who used to date in college and somehow never put an end to it. When Ethan and his wife Lisa (Cobie Smulders) move back to New York, old tensions are revived and everything sort of falls apart.
You know that episode of How I Met Your Mother in which Robin meets up with a former boyfriend, and starts acting as if she were sixteen again? This is what the entire show is like- a bunch of forty year-olds acting like teenagers. While the allegory can be at times repetitive, it was clever for the show to compare Ethan’s lack of progress in his Young Adult novel to him being, admittedly, stuck in adolescence.
It is perhaps its premise (that anyone would cheat on Cobie Smulders) that keeps Friends from College from reaching its full potential. The show gets too caught up in the cheating schemes and ends up neglecting a wonderful supporting cast, which includes Jae Suh Park as Marianne, an actress who somehow makes a living out of flopped plays, and Fred Savage as Max, Ethan’s literary agent.
In what is otherwise an average dark comedy, the jokes made at the expense of the literary market and “sexy monsters” are hilarious. Ethan’s initial reluctance to the idea of writing a trashy best-seller, his arguments that Young Adult literature is ruining people’s minds, followed by his apparent incapability of writing something that sells, is a testament to the crisis that literature and “serious writers” are facing up today. By having him fail, the show tells us writers of literary fiction hate YA not because of its trashiness, but because they cannot replicate it.
The fight he and his wife end up having over this, was refreshing to see. Normally in a TV show or movie, the non-compromising literary genius would refuse to write garbage for money while his nagging wife complained about “how it would look”- that is, after all the conflict at the centre of novels about writing novels, such as George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Friends from College doesn’t do that- Lisa is a self-sufficient attorney who is glad enough to support her husband’s writing (even if at the moment they are sleeping on Marianne’s couch), and Ethan is the one who feels the need to make money so he can be a match to Sam’s rich husband, who, get this, “does not like fiction”. This show is filled with jokes for and about writers, and certain episodes truly hit the nail on the head on this one- from Busy Phillips as the successful, Brazilian-barbecue-loving YA author who advises Ethan on his new novel, to Max’s suggestions for a theme (“Deathball”), Friends from College would be a hundred times better if it stuck to publishing industry jokes.
Unfortunately, that is not what happens. Ethan and Sam continue their affair, expecting sympathy from an audience that does not care enough to give it to them. The constant affirmations we get from both in isolated moments that they are “bad people” do not ring true to an actual morality crisis. The one funny conversation that arose from it, which regarded Kantian morals versus Relativism, ended up having no influence in the conversation.
How funny could it have been if these people, who have apparently all gone to Harvard, actually had discussions like that all the time to solve problems? Instead, we get increasingly dumb conversations, or simple miscommunications. The alumni from Greendale Community College alumni exchange smarter banter (God, I miss that show).
One great episode, in which Lisa goes through the process of IVF therapy, allows the actors to show their true abilities without making their characters look like terrible people (who knew you could do that?). It is hard to see Lisa undergo this lonely and strenuous process, which takes such a strain in her body that she gets bruises all over, just so she can have a kid, and not think of Robin Scherbatsky’s conviction not to become a mother. It speaks volumes for Smulders’ acting skills that she can play such different women so convincingly, in spite of how sloppily both shows handle them (yes, I am talking about that finale that never happened).
All in all, Friends from College has its brilliant moments- even if they are collateral or unintended. It might be cynical and hopeless, but it does not trick its audience into thinking otherwise, and cynical, hopeless people would get some good laughs from it. The Guardian’s reviewer of the show said that one wouldn’t want to sit at a table with any of those characters, but is likability that important? If so, people wouldn’t watch or read half of what is considered essential. No one’s asking you to like these people, only to understand where they’re coming from in a distant way- from a distant table.
Image: David Lee, Netflix