‘Friends From College’ review: Ensemble comedy is honest and funny

Life can be messy.

Things don’t always go as planned. In fact, they hardly ever go according to what you had previously drawn up. As John Lennon once said, life can happen while you are busy making other plans. Drafting up ideas, directing your next year, and trying to be something you are not are noble adventures, but all the while, the hours fly by.

For a group of friends who fell in love with each other during their Harvard days, letting go of the past is about as hard as navigating the future. Say hello to Friends From College, which just debuted its second season on Netflix, and is definitely worth your time.

The casting is key here, and with no pun intended, let’s start with Keegan Michael-Key. The former comedy partner to Academy Award winner Jordan Peele on Comedy Central’s Key and Peele here plays Ethan, a novelist who is moving back to New York with his wife (the lovely edgy Cobie Smolders). A writer who jumped the shark creatively to make more money off of his books, mortgaging his personal desire to write what he wants, Ethan is conflicted all around his life.

He’s also having an affair with the married Sam (Annie Parisse), a former girlfriend from college. Max (Fred Savage, hilarious here), who works with Ethan as his agent and story idea guru, is having a hard time tampering down his partying ways, much to the chagrin of his boyfriend, Felix (Billy Eichner).

Nick (Nat Faxon) lives a life of leisure, sleeping through the city’s younger end of female talent while spending slowly seeking out a purpose. The playboy of the group who has a history with Smolders’ Lisa, Nick takes life one day at a time. The same goes for Marianne (Jae Suh Park), a creative artist who finds her home a rental for whichever friend needs it most.

Let’s just say over the course of 16 episodes (all coming in under 30 minutes), the lives of these friends became entangled in ways that creates plenty of drama, desperation, and even a little heartfelt confession to slide under the door of their lives.

Children play a part in each of their lives without taking over the show’s attention and point of view. Ethan and Lisa want to have a kid, but are running out of time, while Sam has two kids with her husband, Jon (Greg Germann, finding kinks in a smaller role). The way their lives intersect and cause problems keeps this car full of fuel for more stories. By the end of the Season 2 finale, I wanted more.

This is a show where friends resemble one large, dysfunctional family, and that is a comedy goldmine for showrunners (and real life husband and wife), Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco. Stoller directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors, so you can expect some slapstick comedy enabled by physicality with some gross-out chaos thrown in. Some of it is over the top, but the real-life deliberative moments balance it out.

Here’s the thing. None of these people are completely honorable or what you would call protagonists. All of them are flawed, part-time selfish con artists who take other people’s time, humility, and morality for granted at different junctures of their lives. None of it is sadistic, but fairly close to petty. I liked this, because it happens so much in real life. People can be ugly, even towards their closest friends. Sometimes, more so than strangers due to a history. If this turns you off, skip this show.

It’s the edgy conversations and realistic outcomes that deal Friends From College its greatest strength. Since the people act in sometimes deplorable and unfit ways, you feel like you are watching a good hybrid of real life and sitcom-type fantasy. The comedy can switch quickly to drama in certain episodes, and the transition is deft.

Outside of the hilarity of doing crazy stuff with your friends, there are honest pitstops at life’s toughest moments. How to fall out of love with someone from your past; trying to change yourself for someone new; finding a healthy middle-ground between safe and fun in your relationships. Anyone who has stuck their head out looking for a happy ending before getting sucker-punched should appreciate this show … while laughing a lot.

The cast is solid across the board, with a few standouts. Michael-Key is known mostly to people by his comedy, but Ethan allows him to slide into some dramatic performing for the first time. Ethan makes a lot of bad choices, but has a good heart, so the actor gets to shuffle between those waves of contempt and good deed attempts. I’m becoming a big fan of this guy.

Savage, recently seen getting read a bedtime story by Deadpool, gets to cut loose as Max. Here’s a guy who can’t stop being that 21-year-old party hound; a grown-up playing adult house with someone much more mature than he is.

Smulders is tremendous as Lisa, a successful lawyer by day who can’t seem to make the wise choice in men or find a shred of true happiness. The best moments with the actress, known for her work in the Avengers films, come when Lisa is tearing herself apart emotionally over the anguish of trying to get pregnant. A real problem for so many women in real life is given some weight here.

The rest of the cast does good work, with the majority crafting a true character instead of recycling a type from the television show warehouse. They have enough quirk in their DNA to make up for the outcomes that may seem familiar to some.

Delbanco and Stoller find new ground in a worn out genre, carving out new ways to explore the idea of growing old(er) while remaining true to yourself and your friends. For these people, the group of friends are the closest thing to family, which is good and bad for them, but easy fodder for the creators of the show. There’s endless fun in dysfunction.

I particularly loved the way Delbanco and Stoller examine the intricate everyday troubles of these characters while getting laughs out of the broader life issues such as administering a shot in a bathroom during a party or staring at a blank page that needs to be stuffed with prose for a book.

In the end, it’s honest, heartfelt, and very funny work.

For some people, the end of innocence can be stretched out or mortgaged for many years, sometimes a decade. You crave the endless allure of youth while trying to move forward in adulthood. How do you find purpose and maintain the fun of life without alienating yourself? How easy is it to change? And how worthwhile is a vineyard tour once the driver starts testing the wine?

Friends From College, like its characters, isn’t perfect (and gets better in the second season), but it’s worth watching if you need a show to binge.

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