Centring a TV show around unlikeable characters is a tricky balancing act. In order to keep the audience interested, the dislike has to be countered with humour or intrigue, or at least drip-fed moments of relatability. Lena Dunham did this expertly with Girls, crafting her series around a pack of privileged 20-something New Yorkers who were at turns endearing and insufferable. They were pretty funny, too.
In Friends From College – a new eight-episode Netflix comedy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall & Five Year Engagement director Nicholas Stoller – the leads are terrible, terrible people, but a solid stream of belly laughs make it well worth sticking around beyond a frustrating start to the season.
The show follows Ethan (Keegan Michael Key) and his wife Lisa (Cobie Smulders) as they make the move from Chicago to New York, where they are reunited with their old friendship group, a bunch of inexplicably well-to-do Harvard graduates (a book publisher and a struggling actor both live in massive, pristine NYC apartments, as the Friends dilemma strikes again).
While the narcissistic leads in Girls had youth on their side, the protagonists in Friends From College are a greater source of frustration because they’re old enough to know better. They’re all pushing forty, yet they staunchly refuse to let go of their twenties.
At various stages throughout the season they go to extreme lengths to prove to one another that they’re still as fun as they were in college – including post-*spoiler*-trauma wine binges, nostalgic visits to old dorm rooms and ill-advised drug trips. It’s a web of toxic relationships that they don’t seem wise enough to want to get out of.
But most troubling of all, Ethan and Sam (Annie Parisse) – also married, to a wealthy stiff outside of the group – have been sleeping together for the last twenty years, a flame which they clamber to keep alight as if it’s the last dying ember of their youth.
The group is completed by trust-fund baby Nick (Nat Faxon), Max (The Wonder Years’ Fred Savage), a book publisher whose relationship with his socially awkward boyfriend Felix (Billy Eichner) is threatened by an unwillingness to distance himself from his self-destructive pals, and actress Marianne (Jae Suh Park). The latter is a catalyst for a series of brilliant jokes aimed at pretentious Brooklynites: she’s a wannabe bohemian who believes in holistic medicines that don’t actually work, and her recent acting jobs include a gender reversed staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, and a version of Annie in which the titular role is played by a 90-year-old man.
Jae Suh Park as Marianne
At several points, loved ones outside of the old Harvard gang urge them individually to grow up and step away from each other, yet the allure of feigned youth is too appealing to give up – even though it will cost them relationships, jobs, and rather upsettingly, even pets across the course of a few episodes.
Ethan and Sam’s affair is the crux of the narrative, and it feels like a slog to begin with. But, beyond the first couple of episodes, insights into the workings of their relationships give weight to the storyline. It doesn’t justify their behaviour, but it paints a more compelling, complete picture.
More often than not, there is a laugh to outweigh any growing sense of distaste. Many of these come from a particularly sharp satire of bro office culture, as Smulders’ Lisa begins a new job as a legal consultant in a financial services firm dominated by frat boys. Their business meetings are conducted amidst ball-throwing and chanting, and on at least one occasion genitals are produced. Lisa is warned on her first day that she will have to deal with internal sexual harassment suits.
Kate McKinnon in Friends From College
And, for all their faults, the gang have a great comedic rapport, which is a joy to watch at times. The ensemble cast do well to juggle an uncommon mixture of tones: Key is relentlessly energetic and affable, if at times a little bit too much, and Smulders is a revelation, finally getting the meaty role that her acting chops demand with a turn as an unknowing victim of infidelity who is slowly wising up to her husband’s tricks. Evidently, her aptitude for physical comedy was not tapped into sufficiently on How I Met Your Mother.
On top of this, guest stars Seth Rogen and Kate McKinnon both steal the spotlight when they pop up: Rogen as a former college friend nicknamed “party dawg”, and McKinnon as a typically eccentric YA author. Eichner is criminally underused as Max’s uptight boyfriend, though he is on hand to deliver some scathing lines directed at the main ensemble.
You’d be forgiven for writing Friends From College off as a downer after episode one, but stick with it. The often dour themes are shrouded by brainless-but-hilarious gags about drugs, tennis grunts and, at one stage… a fart [reader, I laughed]. Bizarrely, this is exactly what keeps the show from turning sour during its short run.
Friends From College arrives on Netflix on Friday 14 July.
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