After my extended Trek across the universe, I’ve been on a bit of a sitcom kick lately. Call it a palate cleanser. I tore through the first two seasons of The Good Place (it’s good: watch it), six of the seven seasons of New Girl (waiting for Season 7 to drop on Netflix), and, now, the first of the two existing seasons of Netflix’s Friends from College.
This isn’t something that anyone needs to watch. I’m going to put that out there right off the bat.
It’s another relationship sitcom in the same vein as How I Met Your Mother, Friends, even the aforementioned New Girl. In fact, since I just finished watching Season 6 of New Girl (after what passes as binge-watching for me of all of the seasons), that was the series I found myself comparing this one to the most. Friends from College is on Netflix, so there is more coarse language, of course, but the situations in this comedy all seem pretty familiar. In just eight episodes, this series manages to hit on many of the same topics as the Zooey Deschanel vehicle.
Party buses. Young adult fiction-writing. The usual couplings and un-couplings among friends. Weddings. Some casual drug usage. Just enough similar situations and tropes to remind me of the other series.
With one huge difference.
I expected this series to be a comedy. While there are comedic moments, they seldom continue to a resolution that is, in fact, funny. Mostly, the viewer is faced with situations that are uncomfortable, at best, and pitiable, at worst. The series has an underlying sadness, which you might expect from a story about a group of friends in their forties trying to hold on to their twenties, and a distracting sense of restlessness. None of the characters come across as likeable, even if they are relatable at times.
New Girl was a comedy with some dramatic moments. Friends from College is . . . well, something else. Not quite a drama, and certainly not a comedy. Just . . . something else.
The creator of Friends from College is Nicolas Stoller, the director behind the movies Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors. While I’ve never seen Neighbors, I remember feeling the same way about Sarah Marshall that I do about this series. I found it interesting at times, with some funny moments, but could never fully identify with the characters or, to be honest, care what happened to them. As a person who prefers character-driven stories, this is a bit of a dealbreaker for me. The situations can never be fully impactful if I don’t care about the characters involved in them.
This doesn’t mean I don’t like the actors involved here. Keegan-Michael Key, as Ethan, and Cobie Smulders, as his wife Lisa, are doing their best with the material they have to work with, although Key’s manic schtick manages to get old even in only eight episodes. Nat Faxon turns in another great low-key performance, this time as trust fund baby Nick who doesn’t work and dates women half his age. Fred Savage continues to leave The Wonder Years behind as Max, the gay friend in the group who lives with a partner, Felix, played by the always funny Billy Eichner. Even my two least-favorite of the “friends,” Sam (Annie Parisse) and Marianne (Jae Suh Park) turn in good performances. I have to add honorable mention to Greg Germann as Sam’s beleaguered husband as well.
It’s simply a matter of the whole not being greater than the sum of its parts. There’s just not much humor to mine from the long-term affair between Ethan and Sam behind their spouses’ backs, or from Ethan and Lisa’s attempt to have a baby. Ethan’s shift from writing literary fiction to young-adult werewolf fiction has its funny moments, but is, again, mostly sad. Plus, as is usually the case, Ethan seems to be one of those television or movie authors who rarely seems to write. When any of the characters is off-screen, I didn’t get the feeling that they still existed. I can write some of that off to this being the freshman season and the fact that the characters haven’t been fully fleshed out yet. Another reason for this feeling is that all of the characters are supremely selfish and even they don’t seem to believe the other characters exist when they’re not around.
This may seem like a harsh criticism. I suppose it is. This series should be better than it is. I intend to watch the second season in that frame of mind. It’s just got to get better than this.
The bottom line: Friends from College is long on pathos and bathos, but comes up short in the laughter and ethos departments.
Season 1 Report Card: C-minus