Review: Netflix’s Friends From College: It’s Okay to Skip This College Reunion


Friends From College from Nick Stoller, stars Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Fred Savage, Annie Parisse, Nat Faxon and Jae Suh Park. The eight-part half hour series is available on Netflix now.

I was fully primed to enjoy Friends from College, Netflix’s latest comedic series. I’m a huge fan of half of its main cast (Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage, and Cobie Smulders). Further, co-creator Nicholas Stoller and I share a deep love of and respect for the friends we made in college. Hell, I was headed to a mini-reunion at the wedding of one of them as I burned through the series. And yet, something didn’t click. I realized it when I went from a first pass of the episode list thinking “Wait, there are only eight episodes?” to “Well, at least there are only eight episodes.” That realization didn’t feel good, but it felt accurate.

Just over halfway through the season, Max (Fred Savage) and his boyfriend Felix (Billy Eichner in an outstanding supporting role) quarrel at a winery, where Felix shares an observation: “You’re a different person around them. I don’t know who that person is, and I don’t like that person.” This observation felt apt for the show as a whole- not because I wanted to see these actors play characters I recognized, or even because I demand likeable characters. No. It felt apt because many of these actors are capable of more, but were inexplicably failed by odd pacing and a lack of depth.

Key’s performance, in particular, felt wasted. He’s shown repeatedly in the time since Key & Peele’s cancellation that a straight man role can still be imbued with humor; in fact, he did wonderful work in that precise position on this season of USA’s Playing House, as well as in Mike Birbiglia’s superb Don’t Think Twice. Here, Stoller and his wife/Friends from College co-creator Francesca Delbanco don’t seem to know how to adapt his style to their ecosystem. The same odd fit feels true for Faxon’s character, Nick. Personally adept at blending comedy and drama (look to his work on The Descendants and The Way, Way Back for proof), there are such gaps in his character development that when he does show up, you spend more time wondering where he’s been and who he is rather than enjoying what he brings to the table.

On the upside, Savage and his talents are used quite well. Stoller tapped him for a resurgence of sorts for FOX’s The Grinder, and he continues to impress with his matured comedic chops here. He is the most interesting complex of the sextet of friends, and takes center stage in two of the show’s most enjoyable scenes: a panic-fueled run around a McDonald’s parking lot, and a triumphant jaunt through the city set to Hanson’s “MMMBop.” But even these standout funny moments are stunted by an odd pacing that makes them seem out of place in the show that surrounds them. To that end, a scavenger hunt-like chase around New York for Key and Smulders’ Ethan and Lisa felt out of place on this show, but was set to a frenetic drumbeat that evoked notes of Amazon’s far superior Catastrophe– so much so that I wondered audibly, “I wonder how Rob and Sharon would have handled this?”

Episode 6, “Second Wedding,” is the most successful of the six, providing revealing character development for all of the friends while providing considerably more laughs and heart than the five episodes that precede it. However, the triumph of this episode comes too late to salvage all that’s happened before it. Even with an appearance by Seth Rogen and a frank conversation between him and Key about attracting women by dressing in uniform—essentially as anything you’d dress up as as a kid, except ninja or astronaut—you’re still left wondering, “Where was all this before now?”

The magic of our college years and the reason those relationships persist, comes in the ability to freeze those experiences and relationships in time, and return to them when we reunite. Friends from College aims to imagine what it would look like for a sextet to never leave those times, instead arresting these characters at near forty with the same quirks and flaws as when they met at Harvard. What was instead arresting for me, however, was how little they seemed to know each other, and how little we got to know them over the course of the episodes. Absent real context for their relationships, or humor to meaningfully draw us toward their present, Friends with College ends up being a largely unfunny or compelling look at people we wouldn’t want to hang out with- then or now.

 

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.