Married writers Nick Stoller and Francesca Delbanco were inspired by their own group of pals from Harvard to create the Netflix comedy “Friends From College.” But they weren’t prepared for the sting of the show’s bad reviews.
“People were saying, ‘these characters are just so horrible, hanging out with them is like crawling over broken glass,'” Delbanco said. “It made us look in the mirror and think, ‘oh God, is that what the world thinks of us?'”
Season 1 of “Friends From College,” released July 2017, ultimately averaged a disappointing 44 score on Metacritic and deemed just 23% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. IndieWire called the show a “mess.”
“I was honestly quite surprised at the critical response,” Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Neighbors”) said. “I didn’t think we’d be winning Emmys with this, but I thought the reaction would be generally positive.”
Still, viewers apparently binged all eight episodes enough for Netflix to renew it. A year and a half later, the show is back for a second season: Eight new episodes of “Friends From College” will premiere Friday, January 11.
“A lot of people were watching to completion. That’s the only metric they really care about. And they picked us up quickly because of that, which was very gratifying,” Stoller said. “One of my favorite tweets I saw was, ‘Just finished “Friends from College.” I hated it.’ But you watched the whole thing!”
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Added Delbanco: ” We were heartbroken that critics didn’t really like it, but felt like it was an interesting conversation that people were having about it and obviously people were thinking about it, which is hopefully good.”
Keegan-Michael Key (Ethan), Cobie Smulders (Lisa), Annie Parisse (Sam), Nat Faxon (Nick), Fred Savage (Max), and Jae Suh Park (Marianne) star on the show as besties who met at Harvard and now all live in New York City. Guest star Billy Eichner plays Felix, Savage’s love interest.
As “Friends From College” returns, it picks up about a year after the Season 1 finale — which gave Stoller and Delbanco a chance to excise the most criticized aspect of Season 1: They acknowledge that the affair between Ethan (who had been married to Lisa) and Sam did not go over well.
“It was very clear from the critical response that people were really unhappy and uncomfortable about the affair between Sam and Ethan,” Delbanco said. “And the fact that the show didn’t take them to task or punish them for it. We felt like we really heard it. And we put an end to that affair. It was an idea we were interested in playing around with, grownups behaving badly and making a mess in their lives. But we heard critics feeling like it was too much and it was too unpleasant to be implicated in it by just watching and enjoying it.”
By pushing the show’s storyline ahead a year, Stoller and Delbanco were able to end the affair storyline and essentially push all the characters apart.
“Everyone’s cards are on the table at the beginning of this season,” Delbanco said. “Everyone knows everything that was going on. There are no longer any secrets that the characters are carrying around. Or lies they’re trying to not be caught up in.”
Added Stoller: “We were planning on adjusting it anyway because doing more affair stories would have just been repetitive, but that is not a part of the second season,” Stoller said. “Which I think will be a relief for a lot of people.”
When Season 2 opens, the pals haven’t spoken for nearly a year — but the engagement and impending wedding between Max and Felix forces them to come back together and deal with their baggage.
“We needed them to reluctantly find their way back to each other and it needed to be something they were all called to,” Stoller said.
Among other things, in the wake of the affair reveal, Lisa has disappeared, Ethan has been writing a young adult novel while contending with his guilt, and Sam has been repairing her marriage with Jon (Greg Germann). Sarah Chalke joins the cast in a guest-starring role as a love interest for Nick, whose feelings persist for Lisa after their own tryst at the end of last season.
Delbanco admitted they painted themselves into a bit of a corner at the end of Season 1, but ultimately decided to make Season 2 about a “reckoning” between the friends.
“If the premise is your oldest best friends are like family in that you love them and have all kinds of issues with, it seems like it would be hard to shed all of them and feel like a complete person in your life,” Delbanco said. “That tension [of the affair] is gone this season, but hopefully replaced by real human emotional tension that would maybe make it a slightly more pleasant viewing experience, and it might bring people around. We’ll see.”
Stoller and Delbanco said Netflix had been “supportive” through the release and reviews, and were on board for the new direction in Season 2. “A lot of people have the experience in TV where if their show isn’t the critical darling or doesn’t do the kind of numbers the network is hoping for, people look at it with a much colder eye. We didn’t have that experience,” Delbanco said.
If anything, it was the reaction from their actual friends from college that was more mixed: Stoller said their real-life pals were “either positive or silent.”
“One of our closest friends from college recently told us that he hadn’t watched it,” Delbanco revealed. “We looked at each other — Really? Wouldn’t you be curious? I guess not!”
“Friends From College” Season 2 will hold its world premiere screening at the Austin Film Festival on Friday, October 26 at 7pm, followed by a Q&A with creators Nicholas Stoller & Francesca Delbanco. Screening is open to the public, details here.
Here’s a first look at Season 2: