‘Friends from College’ is finding its way with a balance of smart comedy and unconventional family drama.
They say you can’t choose your family. And Tolstoy famously wrote that “all happy families are alike.”
So how do you explain the cast of Netflix’s new sitcom, Friends from College? To be sure, they function perfunctorily as the titular (can we call them titular?) stars of the show (they are “friends from college”), but even such a designation doesn’t properly explain the deconstructed alchemy on display. Just when you think you understand what the show is trying to be, it dives off into another corner of another thought landscape, hurling the viewer down an excursion that is usually, more often than not, worth the ride.
Starring Keegan-Michael Key (Comedy Central’s Key and Peele), Cobie Smulders (The Avengers, How I Met Your Mother), Fred Savage (Wonder Years) and a fine ensemble cast, Friends from College follows a group of Harvard grads into the new frontier of middle age — namely, the 40s. An accomplished literary writer (award-winning, but with absolutely no commercial success), Key’s Ethan Turner is happily married yet carrying on a decades-long affair with another “friend from college” (played by Annie Parisse). To make matters worse, they’re all friends, and what ensues at times is hilarity, sometimes painful hilarity, but the cast is so good they make it work, even when the writing is less than great.
Here’s the thing: Friends from College hits all the right buttons, especially in balancing the comedic ratio with meat-and-potatoes dramatic content. It feels a little like an HBO or Showtime pilot that didn’t make it but was picked up by another network; this time, Netflix. It’s right at home here, thanks to the added benefit of being able to watch the entire series at your own pace. A sitcom has to function on various levels, and Friends from College fulfills this cursory entry point.
On one level, Friends from College is a family drama in another guise, wearing its clothes uncomfortably at times. Then again, it can also be described as a smart comedy about a bunch of midlife adults still young inside and having trouble with accepting that they are, in fact, real adults.
The nuclear family in its original incarnation hasn’t been in existence for a couple of decades now, and one could argue that by the ’70s the general perception of family was already under heavy deconstruction. One of the characters even says, “My family is my family,” in critiquing another character’s declaration that his friends were his family.
Without hitting us with this theme over and over again, Friends from College creators show us exactly what it means to be a family. In all its occasional calamitous juggling of plotlines, one-liners and story arc considerations, what makes this show work on a visceral level is, as Quentin Tarantino has said about good movies, it makes you want to “hang out” with the characters. Essentially, that’s what you do when you slip into a few episodes of Friends from College.
There’s funny stuff — really funny stuff — here. When Key’s character attempts to have sex in a more “masculine” position with his wife, he finds himself straining under the weight, unable to “gain purchase” — his quote, not mine. There’s a night of crazy drug-filled brainstorming for a new YA series, in which Fred Savage shows off some fancy tap-dancing moves. You have married, single, gay, straight, rich, poor, middle class, white, Black, Asian — Americans doing, well, American stuff. Guest stars (like SNL’s Kate McKinnon) creep in on you. One of the female characters in a girls’-night-out moment makes a play for an old man’s money, and he gives it to her. Also, if you ever wanted to see an upright bass player keel over, this is your show.
Now, for the bad. Friends from College feels unfocused at times, as if it doesn’t really know what it wants to be but aspires to something much higher. It suffers in the way that Family Guy, American Dad, and so many other laugh-trackless comedies do: Do you hit them with a barrage of jokes, and if so, how often? Do the jokes even have to make sense? Do you pile them on one by one, give some dramatic gravitas, go back to a raunchy joke, fill in some character development? If Friends from College is weak in any department, it’s likely the ambition of trying too hard to be so many things at once. And let’s face it: When you’re dealing with an ensemble cast, this is always going to be the creative challenge.
Then again, in the Golden Age, or as TV critic David Bianculli, puts it, the “Platinum Age” of TV, it’s always a delight to see risk takers perform high-wire acts, and the show’s creators, Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller, prove that they do have a story to tell, even if the apparatus is a little clunky at times. Like any family, the cast and crew of Friends from College are trying to figure themselves out as they go along.
You can’t say this for every Netflix original series, but Friends from College holds your attention admirably. No matter where the plot points eventually resolve and dissolve, Friends from College is the type of bet that needs to be placed every year — so, yes, it deserved to be renewed for season two. I’ve seen enough to know I care about the characters, and I want their lives to continue to be miserable, funny, exciting affairs that can be consumed in a binge-induced haze.