How much do people change over 20 years? Many college friends don’t stay close over the course of multiple decades. However, what happens when an old group of friends comes together? Do they revel in how much they have progressed, or do they regress to the people they were when they were 20? This is the central premise behind Netflix’s new Gen-X aimed show “Friends From College.” Yet, good intentions, solid plot buzzwords and a talented enough cast only further accentuate how flawed the show is.
A group of Harvard alums find themselves all living in the same city for the first time in 20 years. Married couple Ethan (Keegan Michael Key) and Lisa (Cobie Smulders) return to New York to start a new life, new job and (hopefully) a new family. However, upon arriving, they find themselves quickly summoned into old college habits with all their friends in the city. Ethan enters into an ongoing affair with fellow married friend Sam (Annie Parisse) to escape the fertility trouble he’s having with Lisa. Meanwhile, outgoing book editor Max (Fred Savage) tries to integrate his friends into his current life with his prickly doctor boyfriend, Felix (Billy Eichner). Other members of the friend-group–Max (Nat Faxon) and Marianne (Jae Suh Park)--drag their friends into their perpetual states of arrested development.
The basic premise sounds like a fun summer binge that can hit upon adults sacrificing their adult lives pursuing fleeting feelings of nostalgia. Creator Nicholas Stoller commands an interesting perspective of the relationship between adults and college life, as evident by “Neighbors.” That’s what makes this venture’s failure particularly stinging. All the ingredients, down to the well-stocked cast, are primed for success. In the end, however, everything comes off stilted, grating and unfortunately misguided. The writing can never seem to commit to the tone of comedy it wants to be. Moments of pure, unadulterated comedy and raunch give the material some punch. The undercurrent of gravitas could shine through, if the characters’ inner lives outside of their college selves were more developed. It’s a multi-layered comedy where every layer is half baked.
If the foundation is built on multiple shaky layers, this leaves the actors to salvage what they can. However, many of the performers veer in the opposite direction of where they should lean. Keegan Michael Key has proven himself to be a strong talent. His comedic energy shines in “Key and Peele,” while the film “Don’t Think Twice” shows depth and edge to this same persona. As a complicated leading man, “Friends From College” should be right down Key’s alley. However, he goes so far over the top that he poisons many of the scenes he is in. The writing tries to make these caricature voices and overly mannered gestures part of Ethan’s character. However, these eccentricities become the center of the character, overpowering anything else happening in the show.
The rest of the group ranges from misused to showing potential. Fred Savage fares the best as the aggressively optimistic Max. His storyline is one of the few that embodies the dichotomy of how nostalgia can ruin an otherwise solid life-plan. Plus, he exudes the charm of a plush teddy bear each time he’s on screen. “How I Met Your Mother” alum Cobie Smulders pulls the most from her dramatic infertility story. She deserves another great sitcom to headline. Parisse wants to do more with Sam, but she reads as a less defined, more cookie cutter conflicted adulteress. Faxon and Park aren’t even given characters to play. Throughout the entire eight episodes, their characters can’t find any more depth than a one-note punchline. For a show built on the inner-workings of a friend-group, it isn’t much concerned with building out anyone outside of the core love triangle.
Few TV sitcom sub-genres are as filled out as the tale of six friends in the big city. There’s a tale to be told of what happens to these people once they get old. However, this is not the one worthy of your time. In the meantime, fill the void of what could have been with old “Friends” episodes followed up with current “Casual” episodes. At the rate Netflix is churning out shows, we should have another take on this material shortly.