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'Friends From College' skipped Storytelling 101 at Harvard

By: Hank Stuever The Washington Post
July 14, 2017 Updated: July 14, 2017 at 8:49 pm
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In the too-much-TV era, viewers face an excess of shows that feel more like favors than fully formed works. This is especially true with comedies, often hatched inside echo chambers of mutual praise and shared worlds that then are greenlighted quickly by networks (cable and streaming, usually) willing to throw money at self-absorbed ideas.

Netflix's "Friends From College," a tepid attempt to make the anxieties of a clique of Harvard alums who are turning 40 seem relatable and funny to the rest of us peons, is co-created by film writer and director Nicholas Stoller ("Neighbors," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") and Francesca Delbanco. Like two of the characters in "Friends From College," Stoller and Delbanco both went to Harvard and are now married. Care to bet money on the likelihood that someone at Netflix is also one of their friends from college?

Some of us who didn't go to an Ivy League school have also thought, at one time or another, that the long postscript to our college days (also known as real life) might make a funny/sad TV show. The difference, I guess, is that Harvard people get their TV shows made. There's nothing inherently wrong with writing what you know or collaborating with a spouse on a passion project, except when it results in the TV equivalent of claustrophobia. There's hardly room - or need - for an audience here.

Along with the show's inability to find a consistent comic tone or a memorable story line (it leans heavily on the usual choices: marital infidelity, light class envy, fertility issues), "Friends From College" makes embarrassingly poor use of a cast that deserves to be in a better show.

Keegan-Michael Key ("The Key and Peele Show") and Cobie Smulders ("How I Met Your Mother") star as Ethan and Lisa, who've recently returned to New York and are crashing on the sofa-bed of their college friend Marianne (Jae Suh Park). Lisa, an attorney, doesn't know that Ethan, a novelist, has been having a long affair with Sam (Annie Parisse), another friend from college who runs a successful interior design business and married rich.

Fred Savage plays Max, yet another friend from college who is also Ethan's literary agent as well as the group's token gay person, trapped in a no-fun relationship with Felix (Billy Eichner), who is not a friend from college but is Lisa and Ethan's fertility specialist. Nat Faxon ("Married") plays ... Nat Faxon, basically, because there's not much room left to elaborate on his particular first-world problems (trust fund, bacheloritis, blah blah).

As it fumbles through eight episodes, "Friends From College" owes an obvious debt to a seminal work of a sitcom TV that went by a shorter name ("Friends") combined with a passing admiration for Nicole Holofcener's excellent films (2006's "Friends With Money" comes to mind, as it so often does when watching TV shows that try and then fail to harness the same rarefied ennui).

Sadly, this will suffice for some viewers, who might willingly overlook "Friends From College" shortcomings just to gawk at apartments, houses and other signifiers of a life just out of reach. Beneath all this banality, only Key and Savage make something out of the show, exploring the silly and bromantic aspects of their characters as they try to redirect Ethan's writerly ambitions away from the Philip Roth demographic and toward the booming YA market. ("Saturday Night Live's" Kate McKinnon makes an absurd but welcome cameo as an expert in teen-horror novels.)

As the group reunites and regresses in behavior, it's Max's boyfriend, Felix (Eichner), who keeps wondering aloud if there's something dysfunctional and even damaging about the dynamic. The show's best moments are when Felix asks Max and his friends to grow up and get over themselves. Instead of being heard (or better yet, being put in charge of programming at a TV network), he is eradicated, like a disease. Viewers will feel a similar rejection. It's a show with a chronic case of the "you had to be theres" and about as much fun to be around.

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