“Friends From College” is a mess. It’s a messy story with messy structuring and messy characters, and while the last point may sound like an attribute for a mature adult comedy about aging, relationships, and responsibilities, be warned: These characters won’t stimulate fresh thought or delight you with their quirks. They’re scattered, illogical, and subservient to a plot that’s promising a trainwreck at every turn. And who wants to watch pointless, easily avoidable failure?
It’s shocking how dumb a group of Harvard alumni can be.
Whether that’s the ironic twist or the careless oversight is unclear. The titular group of friends occasionally throw around fat SAT words (often clumped together in overindulgent sentences that scream, “Look how smart I sound!”), but their juvenile behavior is beyond amateur diagnoses. As much as these Ivy Leaguers want to offer advice to one another, none of them are therapists and they all need professional help.
Meet Ethan. A respected writer whose books aren’t selling, Ethan has decided to move back to New York with his wife, Lisa, so they can be closer to their friends, but that means Lisa has to take a new job at the ultimate bro’d out office. An impossibly toxic work environment, on top of IVF shots and being the family’s sole supporter, makes for a stressful life.
But she doesn’t even know the half of it: Ethan is cheating on her with her best friend, Sam. The two had been meeting up sporadically for a long-distance fling, but now that they’re living in the same city, their secret “affair” — which both of them think is an unfair descriptor — is getting very, very complicated.
The rest of their friends have tertiary ties to our core couple (Ethan and Lisa). Max works at Ethan’s publishing house and helps him develop a new book. He’s dating Felix, who doubles as Ethan and Lisa’s fertility doctor. Marianne lets Ethan and Lisa crash on her couch while they save up for more permanent lodging in the city. Nick is…well, I don’t know who Nick is or what he does. He’s flexible, though, and spends a lot of time platonically relaxing with Lisa when Ethan is cheating on her with Sam. What ties them all together is college, and it’s really the only thing keeping them together — you know, besides the affair.
Now, you may have noticed from photos that “Friends From College” is filled with famous faces you likely know and love. But there’s a reason these names haven’t been listed yet: You need to imagine the above plot enacted by nobodies to understand what you’re getting into. As impossible as it may sound, “Friends From College” actually renders the charms of Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Nat Faxon, and additional lovable, talented thespians entirely moot.
Brief, random bits of their inherent charm pop up, but they’re almost instantly squashed by circumstance or a quick cut to the next scene. Smulders (Lisa) does a dynamite impression of a Russian model, but the story doesn’t support it. Faxon (Nick) excels at slipping in bluntly honest one-liners, but he’s not utilized enough, nor do we really understand anything about who he’s playing.
Key’s (Ethan) unbridled enthusiasm is stretched to the extreme so often it starts to snap back, working against him more than it gets laughs. As the series’ lead, we need to believe Ethan is a real guy, and Key’s crazy antics become as exhausting as they are infuriating. (A recurring anxiety-induced goofy voice bit never works, but not even Key can’t put the fun in “Fun Ethan,” who randomly introduces himself in Episode 6.)
What’s heaped upon poor Billy Eichner is even worse. The hilariously loud, fast-talking, culturally insightful star of “Billy on the Street” is asked to be the buzzkill of the group. Felix isn’t down to clown. He wants a relationship with Max. He wants to be successful at his job. He wants to be an adult, and as much as he tries, putting up with his boyfriend’s obnoxious, inconsiderate friends proves intolerable.
At times, it feels like the writers want Felix to function similarly to Barry, the airline attendant who chides and dismisses Jess and her friends for being lunatics during Christmas on “New Girl.” Eichner makes a truly wonderful asshole who relishes his naysayer role, but he’s able to make it funny by going big, simultaneously exhibiting unending energy and a complete embodiment of “zero fucks.”
But the cast dynamic of “Friends From College” doesn’t support Eichner’s most common on-screen characteristics or the diminished versions demanded here. He’s just the straight man who’s occasionally asked to out-weird his boyfriend’s weird friends. If he doesn’t, the audience might realize Felix is the most endearing character and want to track his story instead of the nonsense we’re asked to watch instead.
Continue reading for spoilers you might need to know.