Now, I love Pavement as much as the next 25-year-old with a thing for 90s rock—probably more. But the choice is problematic here because it highlights the show's most glaring weakness: the series is about 40-year-olds who went to college in the mid-90s when it really should be about 28-year-olds who went to college in the late-2000s. And those guys, I’d note, would’ve been listening to Modest Mouse.
The first episode opens with a humorous if not steamy hotel room sex scene between Ethan (Keegan Michael-Key) and Sam (Annie Parisse), the twist being that they’re married to other people—Ethan to Lisa (Cobie Smulders), Samantha to Jon (Greg Germann). We are also led to believe that Ethan and Sam, who met at Harvard, have been sleeping together for 20 years. This seems insane, given their affection for each other, and yet the show plays it off as a prolonged hookup—a symptom of their arrested development rather than the cause.
The affair serves as the smoking gun that drives the series, especially when Ethan and Lisa move to New York, rejoining the rest of their old Harvard crew that includes the spacy bohemian, Marianne (Jae Suh Park), the trust fund lothario, Nick (Nat Faxon) and the type-A literary agent, Max (Fred Savage).
It’s relatively unclear how or why they’re all still such great friends. Sure, Max is Ethan’s agent. And yes, Ethan and Lisa are crashing at Marianne’s while they look for a new place. But at best the connections feel tenuous; at worst, they're just plain forced. Outsiders like Felix (Max’s boyfriend, played by the underutilized Billy Eichner) observe the dynamics of the friend group, which the friend group insists on calling “the friend group,” with bemused incredulity. Like the viewer, they can scarcey believe these six are besties two decades after college.
There are some funny set pieces, like Marianne’s pretentious gender-inverted staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, Kate McKinnon's raucous cameo (she eats Fogo de Chao for breakfast) and a coke-fuelled brainstorming session for Ethan’s Young Adult fiction book, although, to be fair, Keegan Michael-Key and Fred Savage are both so inexplicably wired in this series that they hardly need anything extra. Key’s frenetic performance, in particular, seems more attuned to long-form improv than what is essentially a sitcom—and not in a good way.
It doesn’t take long for the characters, already somewhat unlikeable in general, to become unlikeable to one another. Marianne grows tired of Ethan and Lisa crashing on her couch. Nick is routinely ribbed for his joblessness. It’s not clear, really, whether Sam and Lisa ever liked each other to begin with. Still, the show’s premise dictates they hang out together, and so we get contrived outings to bars, a disastrous getaway to Long Island wine country and a cringe-worthy finale at Sam’s 40th birthday party. These pressure-cooking tactics work in teenage soaps, like Dawson’s Creek or The O.C., because the characters are in high school. They kind of have to hang out all the time. But that isn’t necessarily the case for well-established 40-year-olds living in New York City. These friends don’t need each other, anymore. And it shows.
Had Friends from College been set in the characters’ late 20s, when their careers and relationships were less solidified, the show might’ve amounted to something more than relatively mindless entertainment; at least the central affair would’ve been believable, and thus possible to empathize with. This is the rare series, too, that might’ve benefitted from more than eight episodes. Several revelations—for example, the fact that Lisa and Nick used to date—are hurried along for the sake of squeezing everything into a few hours.
All of which begs the question: Is this sort of sitcom impractical as binge-able Netflix fare? Or is it simply that some friends from college, after however many years, become just that?