Friends From College Is a Tragedy of Arrested Development
The new Netflix series is a strange, messy dive into what happens when people can’t grow up.
In the fourth episode of Friends From College, Max (Fred Savage) and Felix (Billy Eichner) are celebrating Max’s 40th birthday at The Table, a “super-exclusive” restaurant they’ve waited months to get into. The chef brings over a course on the tasting menu: a “hamburger” reconstructed from foie gras, gorgonzola foam, and toasted slices of spam. The next course is “fruit rollups” made from wild strawberries and organic, acorn-fed pig gelatin. The most popular restaurant in Manhattan is serving kid’s food—it’s sourced from a variety of hyper-expensive ingredients, but it’s essentially the same kind of garbage.
And that’s pretty much the crux of Friends From College itself. It’s about a group of six college friends pushing 40 who have the trappings of adulthood—kids, expensive condos, Mercedes G-Class SUVs—but are somehow stuck at the same level of emotional maturity they were at when they first met. In the first episode, Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), an author of literary fiction, moves back to New York with his wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders), in a reverse version of every freshman’s U-Haul journey. The pair temporarily live on a pullout couch in an apartment rented by their friend Marianne (Jae Suh Park). Ethan is also engaging in a 20-year affair with Sam (Annie Parisse), another mutual friend who’s married to John (Greg Germann), who flies drones around their living room and orders hampers from Zabar’s rather than make breakfast for his kids.
The show is, to be clear, awkward—it meanders through strange plotlines and spends an excruciating amount of time on ridiculous capers, and its characters almost seem to be competing to out-awful each other. It’s been largely panned. Expectations were presumably very different for a half-hour Netflix comedy created by a Judd Apatow protégé, Nicholas Stoller. Like Apatow, Stoller seems fascinated by Peter Pan syndrome, but in his eyes, it’s a modern affliction that’s ruining us all, not just a spoiled actor or a 40-year-old virgin. Friends From College is, essentially, a tragedy. Over the course of eight episodes, its characters display a breathtaking level of arrested development, and almost all of them proceed to blow up their various lives rather than pursue even minimal personal growth. “You guys are stuck in some 20-year time warp,” Felix says, after a vineyard tour goes sour. “It’s fucking pathetic.” And it is.
Take Ethan, who’s forced to abandon his literary career in the first few episodes to write novels for teens instead. “Even the Great American Novel is now the Massive International Young Adult Series,” Max, his agent, explains. Lisa gets a job as a lawyer for a hedge fund, where morning meetings consist of a bunch of finance bros teabagging the speakerphone and screaming obscenities while the SEC is on mute. Max and Ethan brainstorm ideas for his YA pitch in a frantic cram session involving pizza, tap dancing, and copious amounts of Adderall. “I am part-man, part-wolf,” Ethan howls at one point, “humiliated by modern society by day, but at night turned loose, and able to do exactly what I want.”
That no one at any point breaks out an adult coloring book during the show’s four hours is a remarkable show of restraint. The friends rent a party bus to tour the dubious vineyards of Long Island. They crash weddings. They play tennis while loudly shrieking, Monica Seles-style. They have Nerf fights. Ethan smashes not one but two windows. The show’s music communicates how deeply entrenched they all are in their college state of mind: Hanson, Eels, Oasis, Cornershop, the soundtrack from Rent. The only people more hopeless than the six primary characters are the people younger than them, who perform graphic twerk routines at parties and believe internet reports that lung cancer’s been debunked.
Friends From College is largely uncomfortable to watch, although when it’s funny, it can be brilliant (Kate McKinnon has an especially sharp guest performance as a YA author with a shirtless boytoy and a Fogo de Chao franchise). The show’s biggest crime is that it overestimates its audience’s tolerance for watching people screw up. When it lets its characters be real people rather than monsters, it can be deeply moving. (The fourth episode, which deals with Lisa’s attempts to get pregnant via IVF, is one of the most realistic portrayals of infertility in TV history, although it’s undermined by a manic caper plot that sees Ethan try to retrieve hormones they keep losing.) Stoller’s bleak representation of people trying and failing to “adult”—in a moment where grownups use fidget spinners and sticker books are stress toys—is intriguing. But it isn’t really funny.