A group of Harvard graduates struggling to come to terms with the end of their 30s might not sound like the recipe for a new hit comedy. And it isn’t. The characters in Netflix’s Friends from College are over-privileged, shallow and borderline hateful – it’s like The Great Gatsby adapted and updated by Judd Apatow. But there’s a lot to like here, too: sharp writing, genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and sizeable helping of midlife melancholia.
It’s as though we took the youthful optimism of Girls – it shares that show’s acerbic wit and penchant for uncomfortable sex scenes – and fast-forwarded 25 years to the point where life is all mortgages, kids, divorces and wondering if you married the right person. Wallowing in such a depressing swamp might not be everyone’s idea of entertainment, but, if the first episode doesn’t turn you off, then chances are you’ll binge on the following seven. And the cracking 1990s soundtrack, which includes a lot more British Britpop than we suspect most American college students actually listened to back then.
Though an ensemble of six, the heart – if that’s the right word – of the show is a dysfunctional love triangle between novelist Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), his first love, Sam (Annie Parisse), with whom he has been intermittently sleeping since “before it was an affair”, despite the fact she’s married with kids and he somehow married her best friend, Lisa (Cobie Smulders). It’s an ugly, impossible situation that, to their credit, the writers make both grimly funny and moving.
These characters are well drawn and three-dimensional, whether it’s thwarted Ethan (tellingly, his early novel is called ‘My Wild Animal Heart’), in-denial Sam (she’s not trapped, she insists, but she does feel like she’s “locked into her life and all the doors are closed”), or repressed Lisa – whose dissatisfaction explodes while on a work-trip to the Cayman Islands.
The back-up friends are less interesting, acting more as cyphers to service the plot. The weakest character is Max, a clichéd gay man (OCD, insecure, obsessed with restaurants and interior design), and one can’t help but think Fred Savage, he of The Wonder Years, was cast primarily to inculcate in viewers of a certain age a sense of “where the hell did the last 25 years go?”
Each 30-minute episode could stand alone, although a story does unfold over the season, as our three central characters blunder towards inevitable disaster. Along the way, there are some fantastic episodes – standouts are an unlikely wine-tasting tour of Long Island, and one that focuses on Ethan and Lisa’s IVF attempts.
There are successful running gags, too, such as the voice Ethan puts on when nervous, or Marianne’s (Jae Suh Park) woeful off-off-Broadway theatrical offerings (a gender-swapping Streetcar, anyone?). Spliced into the show are occasional one-ep guest-stars, most notable being Seth Rogan, whose oafish asshole schtick is turned up to 11 – presumably to differentiate him from the regular characters.
For a comedy, it’s a downer, but if you’re after an antidote to schmaltzy American sitcoms, then this is your show. At least afterwards your own friendship group will see marginally less hideous.
Friends from College: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.