Flawed characters on television shows are so hot right now. And they have been for years, starting with Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos,” which debuted in 1999. Then we had Don Draper, Walter White, Piper Chapman, and nearly everyone on “Transparent,” “Girls,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” You get the idea.
Now we have Netflix’s “Friends From College,” which debuted on the streaming service Friday. “College” was created and written by Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “The Five-Year Engagement”) and Francesca Delbanco, Stoller’s wife who has appeared in small roles in his films.
“College” follows six friends from – you guessed it! – college. They went to Harvard, and they love to talk about how they went to Harvard. This is probably unrelated, but Stoller went to Harvard.
Novelist Ethan (Keegan Michael-Key) is married to lawyer Lisa (Cobie Smolders). They were friends in college. But ever since college (at Harvard, remember?!), he’s been having an affair with Sam (Annie Parisse) whenever she comes to visit Chicago from New York City. Sam is another friend from college (Harvard College).
In the first episode, things get complicated for Ethan and Sam when Ethan and Lisa move to New York City to sleep on Marianne’s (a criminally underused Jae Suh Park) pull-out couch. There’s no explanation as to why they are living on the couch. But regardless, Ethan and Sam try to end the affair because it is bad, and they don’t want to be bad people.
But they don’t end the affair. Because they are bad people, and every character on this show is a bad person, save for Dr. Felix Forzenheim (Billy Eichner), Marianne (who is essentially non-existent), and at times, Nick (Fred Savage).
One of the very few funny scenes is when the men in the cast do drugs together. They draw in permanent marker on the window in Nick’s luxury New York City apartment, they tap dance, and they throw pizza at the walls and on the ceiling – to see how long it stays there. Eventually Eichner’s character, Felix, comes out of his bedroom and screams, “I have surgery in the morning!” Then a whole pizza falls onto the floor. Watching these characters wait for the pizza to fall onto the floor would be more interesting than watching this entire season.
A subplot that involves Ethan and Lisa trying to make a baby doesn’t work, because it’s trying too hard to get you to emphasize with them and invest in their relationship, that you know is doomed from the first few minutes of the first episode. Another subplot about Lisa being miserable at her job because her co-workers are foul, obnoxious a-holes in blue button-downs doesn’t work either, because even though you know her husband is cheating on her, she’s not that great, either.
All eight episodes try desperately to find some kind of humanizing or humorous way to get you to care about these people. The fact that most of these friends from (Harvard) college are bad people is not the problem. You can root for and care deeply about bad people like Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Hannah Horvath. But those people are interesting, and these people are not.
Even the show’s cast, which consists of some of the best actors in comedy right now – Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smolders, Fred Savage, and Oscar winner Nat Faxon – can’t make these characters or their boring stories engaging, exciting, or funny. The show almost feels like a cruel joke set up like this on purpose, just to see what how much everybody hates it.
I was really looking forward to this show. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is not just one of my favorite comedies ever, it’s one of my favorite movies ever. I love everything Keegan-Michael Key does, and I loved all the hilarious clips I got the chance to view prior to watching all eight episodes.
To my disappointment, the only thing I was impressed with was Billy Eichner’s performance. Eichner doesn’t rely on his typical screaming, and proves he has some range. His character is also on the audience’s side. Felix doesn’t understand how these people are real and alive and have friends and jobs – and he isn’t afraid to let them know how much he dislikes them. The cinematography and overall look of the series is another good thing. The look is dark and stylish, especially for a comedy series, reminiscent of “Master of None.”
Toward the end of the season it builds up a bit – but only a bit, and it’s awful hard to get there without wanting to pull your hair out. And it’s a shame that Nat Faxon barely gets a chance to do anything until the last two episodes, because by then it’s too late to care.
If you think affairs and immature people who mention that they went to Harvard more often than they breathe air are edgy, then this is the show you’ve been waiting for. Dramas that are comedic or comedies that are dramatic do work. But they work when the show knows what it is and knows its characters. Unfortunately, “Friends from College” does not.
You can watch the trailer for “Friends From College” below: