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‘Friends From College’ Learned the Wrong Lessons From Prestige TV

Unlikable characters do not automatically make good television shows


The misconception at the heart of much recent television is that being unlikable is the same thing as being watchable.

It’s easy enough to trace the idea’s origins. The early 21st century brought us massively compelling protagonists who also happened to be loathsome people: murderous mobsters and crooked cops, obviously, but also garden-variety narcissists of a more petty, recognizable strain. Carrie Bradshaw and Larry David (the Curb Your Enthusiasm character, but also the real person) brought the defiant self-obsession of Seinfeld into the cable age, and with it the comedic answer to drama’s seductive monsters. You can find these unholy fools’ descendants on all kinds of excellent shows driven less by characters than their deficiencies, among them Transparent, Girls, and the aptly named Difficult People.

You can also find Carrie’s spiritual offspring on shows like Friends From College, which operates on the mistaken assumption that awful human beings automatically make for great TV. The new Netflix half hour from married creators Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco isn’t the first show to indulge this faulty logic. The show is, however, a particularly egregious example of substituting unsavory people for interesting ones, and then neglecting to make the case for these jerks on the presumption that their frequent faux pas are case enough. The show inadvertently proves that a clan of misanthropes can be just as boring as milquetoast besties, so long as the two groups are treated with equal abstraction.

The problems start with the premise, in that there isn’t one. “Six friends from college still hang out” isn’t exactly a new dynamic, particularly when said friends all occupy roughly the same social milieu: affluent white-collar professionals in major urban areas, with the trust funds, country houses, personal assistants, and Ivy League degrees (Harvard — where else?) to match. The problems are also familiar: Two members of the clique, acclaimed novelist Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and interior designer Sam (Annie Parisse), have been having a long-distance affair that suddenly turns near distance when Ethan moves to New York with his wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders). That’s a mildly intriguing hook, but it’s not enough to stand out, particularly when so many shows augment the same setup with an additional interest driver to turn curious viewers into dedicated fans. (Love has mean-spirited Los Angeles creative types and a sweet, free-flowing chemistry between its romantic leads.) Such a lack of specificity only increases the burden on the characters. We’re attracted to a Rebecca Bunch or a Valerie Cherish because of their misguided romanticism or tragic delusion — not because of the terrible decisions those traits inspire. But Friends From College fast-forwards straight to misbehavior. Ethan and Sam’s affair is the main, if minimal, conflict of the series, and after several episodes I still don’t quite understand why they’re cheating, apart from habit and validation. Their physical chemistry is present, though not barn-burning; their rapport is nice, though not the sort of connection you’d risk a family for.

It’s a basic question of motivation that Friends From College doesn’t sufficiently answer, and it’s the first of many. With the exception of the long-suffering Lisa, who deserves neither a philandering husband nor a dissembling best friend, it is difficult to recognize any of the cast members as actual people. How does one survive into adulthood without learning not to literally throw food around an immaculately decorated apartment, as Ethan does while brainstorming his next novel at the home of his fellow group member and literary agent Max (Fred Savage)? The deadpan passive-aggression of Max’s partner, Felix (Billy Eichner), is funny enough, but why does Felix — or anyone else in the group’s immediate vicinity — tolerate these people?

Much of this is an issue of tone: Friends From College can’t decide if it wants the muted, handsomely staged naturalism of a highbrow dramedy or the broad, wacky humor of a goofy sitcom, and so the two elements of the show butt up unpleasantly against each other. Larger-than-life cartoons like Kate McKinnon’s eccentric YA author and Ike Barinholtz’s hedge fund bro populate the show’s periphery, even as the show’s larger themes ostensibly address issues like intimacy and long-term partnership. Self-consciously zany bits like a re-creation of Monica Lewinsky: The Musical mix awkwardly with more low-key strains of humor, for example what might best be called “IVF slapstick.” Key’s Ethan breaks out cartoonish voices and impressions that feel more like a decorated sketch comedian flexing his chops than an organic tic of the writer he’s supposed to be playing — a neat summary of the show’s competing impulses, delivered by the character who’s meant to carry the entire project. Taken all together, it’s a jumble that thwarts itself, the drama weighing down the comedy and the comedy confusing the drama.

Friends From College is only the latest in a string of shows to make its fundamental mistake. Hulu’s Casual, now in its third season, is another aimless story of rich people in general, though not acute, romantic distress; Netflix’s Girlboss assumed its title character was charming simply by virtue of being a pushy, entitled nightmare human. Tolstoy had it right: Unhappy people — generally the sort who inflict that unhappiness on others — tend, on balance, to offer more storytelling potential than happy ones. An iconic villain sticks with us longer than a cookie-cutter hero because there’s only one way to follow a code, but infinite ways to break it. But it’s in exploring and defining that unhappiness where that potential is realized, and Friends From College declines to do either. It’s a free country, and if a repellent person manages to find a group of equally repellent people to tolerate them, I wish them every happiness together. I just don’t want to watch them.