The title of the new Netflix series “Friends from College” might suggest a generic retread of “Girls,” or “thirtysomething,” or “St. Elmo’s Fire,” or “The Big Chill,” or even Mary McCarthy’s novel “The Group.” But the show, which débuted last week, pushes the discomfiting potential of the won’t-let-go genre toward a worst-case comic scenario. The eight-episode comedy is about six former Harvard classmates who have reassembled in New York City, somewhat uneasily, even unhappily, while rounding toward forty. As too many people know, decades-old friendships forged in dorm rooms and lubricated by cheap beers in off-campus dives can be fraught. College friend groups form as ad-hoc families, so why wouldn’t they harbor family-type pathologies—rivalries, jealousies, impenetrable behavioral codes? Reviews have been ambivalent, or worse. “To its credit, ‘Friends From College’ is conscious of how tough its core group can be to take,” James Poniewozik wrote in the Times. “But what it does best—reproducing the experience of going out with an insular gang whose members aren’t as clever or adorable as they think—is exactly the sort of thing you try to avoid by staying home and watching Netflix.” Daniel Fienberg struck a more philosophical note in The Hollywood Reporter: “The process of watching ‘Friends From College’ is not a traditionally pleasant one,” he wrote. “But what if that’s completely intentional? What if ‘Friends From College’ is an elaborate meta-commentary on toxic TV sitcom friendship?” No showrunner would welcome such criticism—but at least it reflects a series with the courage of its convictions.
As I learned last fall, the show’s director, co-producer, and co-creator, Nicholas Stoller, has a deeply held skepticism toward clinging to the past. On a warm November day, he and his cast and crew were shooting a wedding scene at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, which overlooks the Hudson River in the Westchester County village of Briarcliff Manor. The party rooms of the mammoth “clubhouse”—a Beaux Arts pile built as a home in the late eighteen-hundreds by a granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt—were standing in for the interior of the New York Palace Hotel, where the wedding sequence’s exterior shots had been filmed. Stoller and I sat down at one of several dozen banquet-room tables that had been set with gold-trimmed china, crystal, place cards, and towering flower arrangements built around seven-foot cherry-blossom branches. The walls and carpet were pink, the bridesmaids’ gowns pale lavender.
Stoller’s look was standard-issue comedy-guy normcore: a red-and-black plaid shirt, khakis, and running shoes. He has previously written or directed a number of mostly very funny, mostly remunerative movie comedies, among them “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek,” “Neighbors,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” and “The Five-Year Engagement.” He also wrote and directed the animated film “Storks,” from last year, and wrote this year’s animated film “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” He’s worked in TV before, too, most notably as the creator and executive producer of “The Carmichael Show.” But he had not previously made content for a streaming service, and he was enjoying the freedom of not having to worry about scoring big ratings or a huge opening-weekend gross. “With this, a lot of people could watch it or no one could watch it, and we’ll literally have no idea because it’s Netflix,” he said. (Netflix itself will, presumably, have some idea.) The series, he said, has felt “like my version of trying to do an indie movie.”
“Friends from College” is an ensemble comedy, but the central characters are Ethan and Lisa, a married couple played by Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders, who have just moved to the city, where Lisa has taken a job working for a Wall Street firm that is dismayingly coarse and sexist, even by “The Wolf of Wall Street” standards. The move is especially difficult for Ethan, a literary novelist hitting midcareer stasis, because, since graduation, he has been enjoying once- or twice-a-year hookups with a former college girlfriend, Sam (Annie Parisse)—an arrangement that was marginally less threatening to their respective marriages when he and she were living in different cities. The idea, Stoller explained, is that “they don’t think of it as an affair.” (This might also explain why the sex doesn’t appear to be all that great.) The non-affair affair “is a way for Ethan and Sam to live in the past, even though they don’t know it. So, kind of what drives the plot of the eight episodes is, what do we do about this affair,” Stoller said. Really, he added, the show’s overriding theme is “nostalgia, and how we all yearn for our past and how that can be really destructive.” (Stoller does, however, grant the audience the pleasures of a retro-nineties soundtrack, featuring indie-rock hits by the likes of Pavement, Liz Phair, and the Breeders.)
“Friends from College” takes a more jaundiced view of people in early-middle-age pining for undergraduate certainties than did Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film “The Big Chill,” in which the funeral of a classmate triggers a weekend-long reunion of semi-estranged former student activists. They argue, confess, cry, have sex—and wake up on Sunday morning with a renewed sense of themselves. When Stoller’s characters hang out, the results are incestuous squabbling or in-joking that serves only to spur self-loathing.
“ ‘The Big Chill’ is certainly something that we’ve referenced,” Stoller said. “But that’s a lot more serious than what we’re doing.” The wedding episode had originally been intended to be a funeral episode, “but as we were breaking it”—plotting the episode scene by scene—“we were, like, this is just a bummer. Like, we want to be at parties. We want the show to be pretty ‘wish fulfillment,’ like you’re with glamorous people doing fun things and stupid things and getting drunk too much.”
The aspirational quality that Stoller cited is dampened by a cautionary, even disapproving point of view. Parisse’s Sam is a decorator, but her own large, modern house seems to imprison her. The pleasures of a romantic dinner at a superstar chef’s zillion-course restaurant are outweighed by the obligation to summon extravagant praise. The lavish hotel wedding—a second marriage, naturally—brings out the sextet’s worst instincts. This is Whit Stillman’s New York turned rancid.
Stoller co-created “Friends from College” with his wife, Francesca Delbanco, a novelist, and they co-wrote most of the episodes together. Like their characters, Stoller and Delbanco both went to Harvard, though they didn’t meet until several years after graduation, when they attended a playwriting seminar for Harvard grads. The show is, he said, an “extreme version” of their own friendship group from Harvard. A couple of those Harvard friends are writers on the show. “We would constantly look at the people on the staff who hadn’t gone to college with us and ask, ‘Is this funny to you? Or is this just funny to us?’ We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just inside jokes.”
Stoller, who wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, encouraged his cast to improvise, and the actors seemed to have developed their own collegiate rapport, equal parts smartass and sophomoric. I watched a scene between Smulders and Nat Faxon, who plays Nick, a single, independently wealthy roué, during which they spent several long takes riffing on proper grammatical usage of the verb “to bone,” with Stoller tossing out his own embellishments. (None of it made the episode.)
The season finale takes place at a miserable fortieth-birthday party, where the friends restage a musical they wrote in college satirizing the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal. According to Stoller, the scene had to be slightly rewritten when, with the shooting schedule nearing a wrap, the Presidential campaign reached its unexpected end. It would have been weird, he said, if the characters hadn’t brought up Donald Trump while talking about the Clintons. “So we had to do a reshoot and pick that up,” he said. “But it’s not a political show.” In some ways, though, perhaps it is. Trump’s victory was in part a triumph of false nostalgia; the point of the scene is that the friends realize their spoof was better in memory than in reality.