TV

Is ‘Friends From College’ Really As Bad As People Are Saying? An Investigation

Short answer: it's not. Long answer: it's complicated.

Last month there was a little bit of hype around a brand-new Netflix comedy featuring some of the your favourite comedic actors. Keegan-Michael Key! Cobie Smulders! Billy Eichner! The trailer for Friends From College showcased funny people getting into funny hijinks. It certainly seemed like Netflix was sitting on another banger.

Then the show dropped, and people watched it.

That small amount of hype was suddenly replaced by a heck of a lot of gripe — not just from viewers, but also from critics who were less than impressed by Netflix’s new comedy offering.

The Ringer’s Alison Herman wrote that Friends From College “operates on the mistaken assumption that awful human beings automatically make for great TV”. The Guardian‘s Julia Raeside called it “inexplicably, one-dimensionally awful”. Indiewire’s Ben Travers dubbed it “a messy story with messy structuring and messy characters”. Even Business Insider Australia (I mean… ) devoted around 800 words to one protracted joke about how often the show’s characters name drop Harvard (the titular college they all attended).

That is a lot of hate for one eight-episode season of television. I haven’t read that many bad reviews for a something since The Mummy reboot.

When something is universally panned, it’s usually safe to assume it’s pretty awful. But here’s the thing: I didn’t think Friends From College was all that bad. I actually thought it was pretty funny.

Look, it’s not my favourite show on TV (it’s not Degrassi, so how could it be?). I’m not going to recommend it to everyone — although I have already recommended it to some people who I know will enjoy it. But is it, “inexplicably, one-dimensionally awful”? I don’t think so. And neither do the show’s defenders, who have come out of the woodwork to sing its praises.

So, what are the criticisms levelled at this divisive new show? And who’s right: the defenders, or the detractors? Let’s find out.

“The Characters Are Unlikeable”

The assessment that a character — or characters — are “unlikeable” has been levelled at a bunch of different shows over the past couple of decades. Thanks to the era of prestige TV, sometimes a character’s unlikeability is a plus (think the anti-heroism of Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw). It encouraged television-makers to push the envelope when it came to how appealing their lead characters could be.

Suddenly a rote group of TV friends weren’t the fun, charming team on Friends; they are the whinging, arrested assholes on You’re The Worst. There are no more sweet and winning female leads like Felicity and Ally McBeal; instead we have the self-absorbed Mindy of The Mindy Project and trying Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Young people are no longer appealingly glamorous like the cast of Melrose Place and The O.C.; they are sloppy and a bit vapid, like the cast of Girls or Please Like Me. 

Friends From College follows in this tradition. The series centres on a group of grown-up friends nearing 40, who all met at Harvard and who have been drawn back together by the relocation of Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and Lisa (Cobie Smulders) back to New York, where the rest of the gang lives.

Their lives intersect in various incestuous ways: Ethan and Lisa are staying on Marianne’s (Jae Suh Park) couch; Max (Fred Savage) is Ethan’s literary agent; Felix (Billy Eichner), Max’s boyfriend, is Ethan and Lisa’s fertility specialist; and Nick (Nat Faxon) and Lisa used to date, as did Ethan and Sam (Annie Parisse).

You’re supposed to shake your damn head at their stupidity, their selfishness, their bad behaviour.

Except Ethan and Sam never stopped dating. They’ve been having a secret affair for 20 years (which, like, ok that’s a lot of stamina on an affair tbh). So when Ethan and Lisa relocate to New York, the adulterous duo have to face their affair head-on. (Or, they do in theory, at least. This becomes one of the most frustrating threads in the series.)

It’s this that rankles a lot of people: nearly middle-aged characters behaving like children, doing terrible things, acting against their own best interests.

After a tough first day at her new corporate law job, Lisa and Nick get drunk, dress in second-hand wedding clothes and spoil the opening of Marianne’s play — in what is simultaneously one of the most distasteful and funniest scenes in the entire show.

While Ethan, Max and Nick attempt to concoct a best-selling YA novel, the three men get high, draw in sharpie on Felix’s window, and throw pizzas on his roof to see how long they’ll stick there. This is in spite of the fact that Felix has repeatedly told them he has surgery in the morning, and that it’s clear Felix is a pedant who prizes his belongings.

Yes, these people are assholes. They are thoroughly unpleasant. But is Ethan’s affair with Sam any worse than the affair between Alison and Noah in The Affair? Is Nick and Lisa’s poor behaviour in Marianne’s play more egregious than the behaviour of Josh, Tom and Claire in Tom’s girlfriend’s play on Please Like Me? Is the infamous pizza-throwing worse than Hannah running Ray off the road (via an ill-timed blow job) after he’s driven miles to pick her up on Girls?

You’re supposed to shake your damn head at their stupidity, their selfishness, their bad behaviour. You’re supposed to think they act poorly and judge them for it. You’re supposed to notice how often they name-drop Harvard — and, yeah, that’s supposed to be annoying. The characters are thoroughly unlikeable, their lives are extraordinarily privileged (though, arguably, no more so than any of the other (many) upper-middle class people on TV.

Like... welcome to TV in 2017?

In my eyes, Friends From College‘s “unlikeable characters” factor tracks pretty well with how TV as a whole is in 2017. It’s not for everyone, but there’s a strong contingent of viewers out there who like to watch assholes.

I don’t think we can blame Friends From College for taking TV’s obsession with “unlikeable” characters doing shitty things and running with it. And tbh, some of it’s pretty damn funny. Which brings me to my next point…

“It’s Not Funny”

I guess this is hardest to prove, because comedy is pretty subjective. I mean, The Big Bang Theory (cringe) is one of the most popular shows on the planet.

Personally, despite the irritating nature of some of the Friends From College characters (and gags), I think the show is pretty funny.

The episode where the gang gets high and writes a YA novel? Hilarious — thanks in large part to great performances by Fred Savage and Billy Eichner (see my next point). The show is great at building jokes into an arc across the episode (or even the season, as you see with the brilliant but bitter payoff to Ethan’s YA novel, Wolf Trials).

The creators pile hijinks on top of hijinks too. Marianne’s gender-reversed Streetcar is disrupted by the drunk and dressed-up Nick and Lisa in the audience, which takes place in a YMCA gym, with bizarre stage crew who loudly shuffle set pieces across the stage at inappropriate times. There are brilliant comedic nesting dolls throughout.

In The Guardian‘s takedown, critic Julia Raeside writes that “the fundamental comedy writing basics have been kicked aside here,” arguing that the jokes lack substance and consistency, in part because the characters are so impossible to root for. I think this pretty fundamentally misunderstands that comedy is all about breaking in-world rules and constructing absurdities.

The joy of comedy, which we often forget as television becomes more and more real-world literate, is that it doesn’t actually have to be about anything. Take Seinfeld: it’s literally a show about nothing. There’s an entire episode of that show about which member of the gang can last longest without masturbating. Is that a high-falutan joke that speaks volumes about the time in which Seinfeld was made? No. Is it a great gag? You betcha.

Often comedy is at its best when it’s just a solid joke-delivery service, and isn’t stuck trying to do something more complicated. Take another Netflix half-hour comedy: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Three seasons on and Kimmy Schmidt is still an excellent joke delivery service, serving up absurd, wonky, laugh-out-loud humour (mostly via the brilliant performances of Tituss Burgess and Carol Kane) — but when the show tries to tackle real-world issues, and to be a mouthpiece for ideology, it fails. The worst and least funny episode of seaons three was undoubtedly ‘Kimmy Is A Feminist!’

What I’m saying is: sometimes it’s ok for a comedy to just do jokes, and not much else. And, in my opinion, Friends From College is pretty good at that.

“It’s A Waste Of Great Actors”

Ok, this is a criticism I can wash with in some sense because this show wastes one of the best comedic talents currently working on TV: the brilliant Keegan-Michael Key, formerly of sketch show Key & Peele.

Key’s Ethan is by far the least relatable and least amusing character on the show — aside from, perhaps, Cobie Smulders, who is similarly wasted in the dud role of Ethan’s cuckolded wife. The show also wastes Jae Suh Park on a role that is sidelined even more than Billy Eichner’s Felix (which says a lot considering Felix is not part of the core six “friends from college”).

In a way the show does a great disservice to these actors by misunderstanding what makes them brilliant performers. Key’s sketch show antics — the voice impressions, the physical gawkiness — are his least interesting performative qualities. Where he really shines is as a tender and heartfelt comedic presence. And we know this because Key excels on another US comedy, the brilliant and underrated Playing House. On Playing House, Key’s Mark is wonderfully uptight and physically foolish, but he’s also gentle and kind and, well, sexy.

On Friends From College he’s none of those things. So his overplayed sketch show persona (so finely tuned on Key & Peele) begins to grate, because there’s nothing tender to back it up.

It’s the same with Smulders, who tends to excel in roles where she can be cool and sharp and lackadasically witty (as she was in her breakout role on How I Met Your Mother). Here she is uptight to the point of being shrew-ish (a quality I hate when its given to a cuckolded wife, because it implies her husband’s affair is somehow her fault). She tends to be the member of the gang who puts a dampener on everything.

As with Key, Smulders is shoved into a part that does nothing for her image, and does little to utilise her best talents as a performer.

However, the series is a wonderful showcase for one person in particular: Fred Savage. Savage, who most Americans know from his time as a teenage TV star on the show The Wonder Years, has spent much of his grown-up career producing and directing on comedy series like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. On Friends From College, Savage is given a chance to prove he is a multi-faceted and identifiable comedian. Max is sweet and charming, as well as bullish and OTT and self-centred (like the rest of the group). Savage strikes just the right balance and produces a stand-out performance.

Billy Eichner is also a standout with a slightly varied (quite toned down) version of the same old Billy On The Street grump (that we’ve previously in Parks and Recreation and Difficult People).

So… Is It Really That Bad?

I think the short answer is: no. The longer answer is: it’s not for everyone, but there’s plenty to love if you’re willing to just sit back and accept the premise (unlikeable people under the spotlight) for what it is.

I do feel the show is getting unfairly savaged for what it is. Perhaps, in our age of the hot take, when writing about a series it’s no longer acceptable for critics to say it’s “just ok”. For your review to stand out online, in the 24-hour news cycle, it needs to have a ripper take — and perhaps that means hyping up the outrage.

Or maybe we have reached a saturation point with these shows about unlikeable characters? I don’t think Friends From College is by any means the most egregious example of that genre, but it may well be the straw that broke the camel’s back. And while I’m fine with watching shows like Friends From College, I wouldn’t complain if the tides turned, and we were flooded with charming shows about good, kind, tender people — your Parks and Recreations, your Jane The Virgins, etc.

Until that time, we’ve got Friends From College — and, in my opinion, it’s not the worst way to spend four hours of your life.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.