‘Friends From College’: Big Stars, Small Laughs

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Friends From College (Photo: Netflix)

Featuring a remarkably talented cast in a remarkably mediocre comedy, Friends From College is a distinctly odd project. It’s crammed with familiar faces, all playing college buddies reunited in a setup designed to make these adults behave like raucous juveniles, thus draining off the appeal that each star brings to the show. Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders play marrieds Ethan and Lisa Turner, who move from Chicago to New York City, where they start hanging out with their old Harvard pals, who include Fred Savage, Annie Parisse (The Following; Vinyl), and Nat Faxon (Ben and Kate; Married). If that weren’t enough of a cast to intrigue you, there’s also Billy Eichner playing Savage’s doctor-boyfriend.

Here’s the oddest thing about Friends From College: All the stars are as likable and watchable as you might think they’d be, yet the show that they’re in is nearly bereft of humor or poignance. It’s as though everyone signed on without reading a script and, good sports all, just forged ahead anyway. Key and Smulders are a couple whose careers are diverging and their marriage fraying. Smulders’s Lisa has a new job with a hedge fund; Key’s Ethan is a struggling novelist who’s having an affair with Parisse’s Sam. Upon arriving in New York, they crash at the apartment of one of the college friends, Marianne, played by Jae Sun Park. Savage is a literary agent who’s trying to help Ethan come up with a more commercial project. Faxon’s Nick is a trust-fund baby who’s grown up to be a trust-fund adolescent, passive and snarky.

They all have plenty of time and get together a lot. They get drunk; they do drugs; they dance; they eat pizza and throw it at the wall. Show creators and writers Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco occasionally find ways to take the action out of New York apartments by having the friends go to a wedding (where Seth Rogen makes a cameo) or do stuff like take a bus trip to a wine-tasting weekend. Where they all get drunk again. The almost studied way in which the scripts are nearly devoid of punchlines suggests that Stoller and Delbanco were going for some sort of postmodern sitcom, where the jokes aren’t as important as the setups, but the experiment doesn’t work.

I kept watching one half-hour episode after the other, popping them like Sourpatch Kids and waiting for the sugar rush to kick in, but instead just got that gross taste in my mouth. When Eichner’s character takes a good long look at this bunch in action, he comments on “how unhealthy and juvenile these friendships are.” You get the feeling the creators were trying to preempt criticism of their show by putting in that line, but it all too accurately sums up the atmosphere of Friends From College.

Friends From College is streaming now on Netflix.

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