With Friends Like These
On the surface, the new Netflix series Friends from College is about a particular type of nostalgia among the Ivy League set. Each of its main characters hates his or her life in a distinct way. For this group, reuniting 20 years after graduation, college represents their great anchoring event, molding their deepest friendships and concepts of themselves—and, because their expectations for what it means to be a Harvard graduate remain unmet and unmeetable, it’s also an unfulfilled promise to which they keep returning. The husband-and-wife showrunners Francesca Delbanco ’95 and Nicholas Stoller ’98 say the comedy grew out of their own experience of the Generation-X Ivy League milieu: “anything that you chase [after Harvard] ends up in some way being a disappointment,” says Delbanco.
The show belongs to a genre of delayed-adulthood comedies (The Hangover, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Stoller’s Neighbors), whose outsized, fratty plot lines reflect the breakdown of social norms governing career growth and family formation. But the characters of Friends from College, for the most part, have reached the milestones of adult life: college and graduate degrees, marriage, financial stability, children. The show is animated not by their failure or unwillingness to grow up, but by the fantasy that they can do so again, and be relieved of their unfulfilled aspirations. Obviously, they can’t: bound by the “having it all” affliction of their peer group, adulthood is both inescapable and fated to be depressing.
The eight-episode season opens with Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), a literary fiction writer, warning Sam (Annie Parisse), a hard-edged, ultra-rich designer, that he and his wife are moving from Chicago to New York, where the rest of their social circle is based. That means Ethan and Sam have to end their affair, which has been ongoing since college—and one which, out of self-delusion, they still think of as a “hook-up.” Obviously, they don’t: between Ethan’s un-lucrative career and Sam’s confinement within her life—two small children, homes in New York and Connecticut, and a dimwitted husband—the affair is their only source of joy.
Meanwhile, to fund their city lifestyle and expensive fertility treatments, Ethan’s idealistic wife Lisa (Cobie Smulders), a former ACLU attorney, has taken a job as in-house counsel for Blackstool, a fictional hedge fund whose office culture is a misogynist horror show. On her first day at work, she walks into a room of male analysts discussing regulation with the SEC, muting the phone intermittently to scream sexual obscenities. The dreadful men of Blackstool (exaggerated to fit the broad, slapstick humor of the show, Delbanco says) make a useful foil to the show’s core characters, who belong to the creative class of Harvard graduates and have a harder time turning their talent into career success. Sensitive Ethan is convinced by his classmate and agent Max (Fred Savage) to write trashy young-adult werewolf fiction because his highly regarded novels don’t sell. Representing one ideal of Ivy League masculinity—handsome, charming, bookish, even gifted—Ethan comes off as a victim of publishing’s commercial vagaries, as pitiable rather than annoying.
The real tragedy underlying Friends from College stems from the pressures of the post-recession economy: the indignities of the market; the unaffordability of New York City; the anxiety of linking career and identity; and the expectation, in spite of all this, of professional and personal success. In each other’s company, the friends can regress to young adulthood, which is not healthy for any of them, but at least permits them to create experiences that feel authentic, rather than socially mandated—like a spontaneous vineyard tour on Long Island, or Ethan and Sam’s creepy but still somehow endearing break-in at a Dunster House suite.
The friends from college remain, despite the show’s potential, exceedingly difficult to care about as characters. Not because they do repulsive things (though they do), or because they have no appreciation of their relative advantage (though they don’t), but because they, and the show, seem so unable to think about the real problems that run beneath the surface of their lives. Nick (Nat Faxon), a deadpanning trust-fund child, comes the closest to insight when he quips, in response to Lisa’s hatred of her colleagues, “Well, on the bright side, their kids will be f---ups like me.” Nick represents “a very familiar kind of Ivy League person who exists on his charm and isn’t crazily ambitious,” as Delbanco puts it. “He’s now wondering whether that’s enough.” And in some ways, Nick is actually the show’s most compelling character: he has no pretense of being an upstanding person.
In making the series, Delbanco explains, “We thought about Woody Allen…because a lot of his characters are really self-absorbed and self-destructive, but you sort of, hopefully, can see yourself in some of them.” Put another way: “We weren’t trying to make characters that everyone would absolutely loathe.” It’s doubtful that viewers, particularly Harvard students, will want to see their futures in the faces of this contemptible bunch. But they’d be remiss not to think about the forces that have shaped and constrained post-college choices. Friends from College reflects that convincingly, and, mercifully, does not pretend to do much more.