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‘Friends from College’ season 2: the worst show on Netflix gets slightly better

| Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

“Friends from College” should’ve been a fine show.

It had all the makings of one, anyway, what with its star-studded cast — including Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders — and competent writing and directing from novelist Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller, who directed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Its promising — if not particularly original — premise revolved around friendship and fighting between former Harvard classmates.

In fact, these qualifications are nothing if not misleading, as is the series’ Netflix description, which reads as follows: “Lisa and Ethan move to New York, reconnect with old college friends and learn that some secrets are harder to keep than others.” This blurb makes the show read like “Gossip Girl” for adults. Such a sentence brings “Friends from College” into conversation with other productions involving grown-up problems, drama and uncomfortable situations among a group of flawed adults. Uninspired television, maybe, but probably capable of bringing in a respectable number of streams for Netflix. Above all, “Friends from College” seemed at first glance like it would be adequate and watchable — nothing special, but an enjoyable way to spend a few hours without thinking too much.

Not so. While this show’s sophomore season could indeed be considered passable, or even good, its first season was so bafflingly bad that it was actually remarkable. In many ways, actually, the mistakes of season one are infinitely more interesting than the corrections apparent in season two. There’s just something fascinating about truly misguided television, especially when — as I think is true here — the nature of a show’s “badness” has something important to say. Let’s take a look.

Season one of “Friends from College” was almost unilaterally hated by critics, scoring a rather dismal 24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. While the complaints were many, one universal refrain was that all the show’s main characters were so terrible and unlikeable that they were impossible to root for. Other shows have successfully pulled off an ensemble of horrible human beings: “Arrested Development” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” come to mind, but the examples are numerous.

Yet there’s something different at play here. The “Arrested Development” viewer isn’t meant to think of Lucille Bluth as a sympathetic, relatable character; she is a caricature of a person, part of a larger piece of social commentary. The six friends in Delbanco and Stoller’s show, however, are not cogs in a satirical machine. In fact, the two writers used their own friends as inspiration for the characters of Lisa, Ethan, Sam, Nick, Max and Marianne. They are meant to be real, identifiable people. And they are all terrible — so terrible that season one becomes hard to watch because it wants us to feel sorry for these cheating, lying, narcissistic individuals, when all we want is to see them punished. From the arrogant, self-deluding two-timer Ethan to lazy, cradle-robbing Nick, each character is little more than a bundle of unlikable qualities.

Such a disconnect between creator and audience has a quite disconcerting effect: Stoller and Delbanco, in creating these characters, gave viewers an authentic (although abridged) piece of their lives and were shocked to find that viewers didn’t like what they saw.

Season two, of course, did a better job with the characters, mostly because they were much more miserable this time around, finally facing the consequences of their terrible (and largely unpunished) season one sins. Lisa and Ethan divorce, and Ethan finally faces up to his immense failure as a husband. Meanwhile, Nick and Marianne’s characters are both given more depth, with the latter beginning to deliver some much-needed comic relief through random witticisms. But the show’s writers continue to misfire, relying on contradictory and inaccurate assumptions about modern adulthood that neither resonate nor entertain.

What does it say about America’s ever-evolving set of cultural ideals that Stoller and Delbanco thought we might root for, might even like, a man and woman, both married, who had been conducting an illicit affair for over 20 years? And what does it say about Hollywood’s moral standards that this affair — along with the characters’ many other flaws, indiscretions and wrongdoings — is treated as normal? These unintended, incidentally-raised questions are the only interesting part of what is really just a confusing, uninspired show.

Show: “Friends from College” Season 2

Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Annie Parisse

Favorite episode: “Storage Unit” (episode 2), because at least three of the characters get their just desserts

If you like: “Friends,” but wish all the characters were a lot less likable and the creators were a lot less self-aware

Where to watch: Netflix

Shamrocks: 1.5 out of 5

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