Netflix’s Friends from College Fails as a Comedy

The Friends from College premiere feels more like the first act to an indie feature than a series pilot. It’s just kind of a 30-minute introduction to a bunch of different characters in a bunch of different settings that don’t do or say anything of interest, and then it ends and expects us to be invested.

The premise is simple enough: Six friends from college reunite 20 years after graduation and wind up revisiting all their old relationships, bonds and nostalgia, for better or worse. Seems easy to engage with on concept, but the problem is that it’s a show that asks for your patience while never making the effort to earn it.

It wants to be one of those “show about nothing” in the same vein as, say, Louie or Better Things, where we simply watch characters behave and react, and we as the audience observe from afar rather than being engaged in a detailed multi-layered plot. That’s fine, but none of the characters on the show are really worth paying attention to.

All the characters are seemingly only defined by their profession. Perhaps intentional, sure, but still not interesting. For example, Keegan Michael-Key plays Ethan, a best-selling author of a book about Hurricane Katrina. His long-time friend and publisher is now trying to convince him to write YA (Young Adult) novels instead, so we’re treated to several long, drawn-out scenes of he and his publisher, Max (Fred Savage), arguing over the artistic merits of YA novels and the effects they have on American culture.

These scenes and others, like one towards the beginning where Ethan and his wife Lisa (Cobie Smulders) fight about how to talk to other drivers on the road while stuck in traffic, are interesting enough in their execution. Unfortunately, they never feel like they add anything to the episode other than running time. The show claims it’s about old friends reconnecting, but then spends so much time on seemingly pointless conversations that don’t have anything to do with that.

It’s well cast, for the most part, at least. Even though the central characters aren’t interesting, everyone gives fine enough performances to make it watchable on basic level. The one that stands out, and not for positive reasons, is Cobie Smulders. Anyone who’s read my reviews of films like Unexpected and Results knows how often I’ve championed Smulders, and how much of a completist of hers I am, but here she’s wildly miscast. And it’s not because of her performance, but because she’s 35. And she looks 35. She’s not convincing as someone who graduated high school 20 years ago, let alone college. It’s disappointing that they didn’t even try to age her with make-up or something of the sort, because every moment that she’s paired up with 40-somethings, it’s impossible to believe that they grew up together or that she even belongs in the group. She’s too young to look the part.

Oh, but wait, I haven’t mentioned yet: Friends from College is a comedy. Or at least, it thinks it is. It’s the kind of undefinable comedy that’s become more frequent nowadays where a character will react to something completely normal in an overly angry or sarcastic way and we’re expected to laugh because the character’s behavior is a little bit kooky. It is so bland and unoriginal in it’s humor that, in brainstorming, I have run out of ways to describe it other than just “not funny”. This is obviously difficult, as is reviewing any bad comedy, because if the you as the reader disagree, there’s nothing I can say to sway your opinion.

But take into consideration the episode’s only two real comedic bits other than just character quirky dialogue. One of them is that whenever Michael-Key’s character Ethan is nervous, he talks in a funny voice and makes weird faces. While this stands out as being his sole character trait other than “guy who writes books,” it’s only funny for more than five seconds if you have the sense of humor of an elementary school child and belly laugh when grown men behave like idiots.

The same principle applies to the only other gag, which is when another character mistakes Lisa’s name as being pronounced “Pizza.” Yes, really. In a show about middle-aged, post-college adults reconnecting and reflecting on their youth, this is the level comedy with which we’re presented.

It also does that other annoying thing comedies nowadays like to do in which it confuses pop culture references with humor. There’s a scene where Lisa and Ethan pull up to their old friend Sam’s house, a rather big gray house with dim lights filling the interior and Ethan says “This is like a Black Mirror episode.” I haven’t seen Black Mirror, nor do I know what happens in it, so I don’t know that means.

The ending of the episode is a real stinker. See, the episode opens with Ethan and his old friend Sam (Annie Parisse) getting ready to have sex in a hotel, which they soon decide to call off because Sam has to leave unexpectedly. Somewhere along the way, it’s spoken that she and Ethan had been having an active affair on the side from their spouses for a long time, but now they’re done with it. The final scenes of the episode take place at Sam’s house during the gang’s first official reunion get-together, and after Lisa and Ethan split from each other following an argument, Ethan winds up finding Sam alone cleaning one of the rooms of the house. And wouldn’t you know it, big surprise, they wind up kissing again and restarting their affair.

This non-cliffhanger makes us feel nothing because 1) Ethan and Sam not sticking to their guns isn’t shocking because already saw this affair happening previously less than 30 minutes ago, 2) we haven’t gotten to know any of these characters deeply enough yet to be shocked by their decision, and therefore don’t care, and 3) it’s staged, from the perspective of both writing and filming, in such a way that as soon as Ethan enters the house a few minutes after Sam does, we immediately know what’s going to happen simply based on presentation.

It’s a predictable, uninteresting, and humorless series premiere with, honestly, not that much in it worthy of discussion. It’s competent, but not compelling. Watchable, but not entertaining. I give it a few bonus points for referencing “Judgmental C***” in a favorable light, as I consider it an underrated Kid Cudi song. But, otherwise, Friends from College has given me no reasons to keep watching.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10

FRIENDS FROM COLLEGE IS STREAMING ON NETFLIX