Many great shows have been built around “unlikable characters”: cable television basically survives because of the anti-hero, cringe comedy relies on characters who stumble into awkward positions head first, and even the network sitcom has steadily seen its snark content rise. In some ways, the inclusion of “unlikable characters” is an attempt by television writers to grasp for some kind of truth, a tacit acknowledgment that we’re all unlikable some of the time.
Yet still, having unlikable characters is one of the quickest and most frequent criticisms that we hold against works of art. A quick browse of Friends From College‘s Rotten Tomatoes page reveals the word “unlikable” over and over again, with some reviewers elaborating on how the moral slipperiness of the characters, in and of itself, makes the show “bad”. It is — bad that is — not because it focuses on unpleasant people, but because those people seldom come across as “real”, and when they do, the show refuses to explore how that realness throws light on their unpleasantness.
The premise of Friends From College is solid, although not revolutionary: Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and Lisa (Cobie Smulders) are moving back to New York City after Lisa accepts a lucrative job at a hedge-fund company. Whilst they look for properties, they stay with Marianne (Jae Suh Park) a shiftless yoga instructor and actress who’s a fellow Harvard alumni. Being in the city allows Ethan to continue his decades-long affair with Samantha (Annie Parisse); an affair that’s been going on since college, despite Samantha’s close friendship with Lisa, and Ethan’s friendship with John (Greg Germann), Samantha’s wealthy husband. Also part of the friendship group is Ethan’s best friend from college, and literary agent, Max (Fred Savage), his boyfriend Felix (Billy Eichner), and Nick (Nat Faxon), an unemployed trust fund baby that graduated the same year.
If that plot description makes the show sound convoluted, that’s because it is. What’s worse, it becomes more so as the series progresses. A last-minute affair is particularly difficult to track with what comes before it, and there are whole episodes that feel as if they’re taking place in a different universe from the one that the pilot established. This can largely be attributed to the tonal problems that continually plague Friends From College even when it’s at its best. For example, Ethan throws multiple chairs through multiple windows without the show ever stopping to acknowledge just how cartoonish this seems. It is, at least, somewhat revealing of the character’s inability to cope with stress and speaks to his later actions.
The show later makes a joke of Marianne’s gender-swapped production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but the target of the joke, like so many in the season, is unclear. Is it a critique of experimental theatre? Is the punchline at the expense of Marianne’s acting? Or of her friends’ inability to understand the layers of the play? It comes off as vaguely mean-spirited, but not enough so that the episodes have any real bite. At least meanness would be a point of view that could guide the audience through the show, but as it stands, it swings wildly between cartoonish and dour, with visits at every point in between. It’s as if the sitcom is nothing more than a string of skits lumped together, hoping some cohesion, somehow, will happen.
Lisa’s new workplace is especially puzzling; the behaviour of her coworkers is over-the-top garish and sexist. They pretend to have sex with speakers, with each other, with disembodied voices. They scream obscenities and seem to do little to no work. The irrepressible Ike Barinholtz (who’s an acquired taste but never less than energetic) seems to have been instructed to push all his outlandish tendencies to the limit; he comes off as an abrasive, unrealistic caricature. Whilst it’s no surprise that the upper-echelons of corporate culture would be presented as transparently sexist, the show refuses to explore what that might mean for the highly qualified Lisa: her emotional response boils down to irritated and unhappy. When she finally does confront her outlandish boss, it’s the result of a romantic hiccup, not genuine horror at the bad SNL-like sketch surrounding her.
When things do click into place comedically they greatly benefit from lowered expectations. Billy Eichner’s character, Felix, proves to be the most reliable joke machine; mostly because he seems the most self-aware and the most keenly plugged into the dysfunctions of the group around him. Eichner’s bone-dry cynicism is especially welcome here, grounding some of the more ridiculous set pieces around him and emerging, before he’s unceremoniously removed from the narrative, as a fun audience surrogate. A very long sequence which sees the male leads taking drugs to come up with ideas for Ethan’s new book only really gets a chuckle when Felix steps in to break up the action with deadpan panache.
Friends From College fares much better when it refocuses itself on the dramatic possibilities of its plot; Lisa’s infertility is especially affecting and beautifully handled. It’s not a new plotline — that of the professionally accomplished but fertility-challenged working woman — but here Lisa and Ethan’s frustration are immediately accessible and surprisingly deeply layered. There’s a hollowness that Smulders plugs into that feels very authentic in a show that struggles to get its footing; her struggle to negotiate a life in which she’s in control in all areas apart from the one that feels most important is bruising.
The show is at its very best when it’s unpicking the threads of pain and instability that lays at the heart of a marriage in which both parties are having an affair, and it does so without prescribing a value judgment on any party. It also honestly examines the problems of the relationship without pretending that those problems invalidate the love that they share. It’s sensitive and measured and gives Smulders and Key space to dig down into their performances.
Friends From College offers brief glimpses into why Ethan and Samantha have entered into a decades-long affair, but it’s not a fully convincing twist on which to hang any narrative momentum. At times, it’s just a relationship based on routine. That doesn’t make for compelling television. Further, there isn’t a lot of chemistry between Parisse and Key. This isn’t to say that Parisse doesn’t put in a good performance; there are times when she’s the best thing in her scenes. Samantha is immediately prickly, however, and there isn’t a huge amount of emotional depth to the character, despite her being at the show’s core. Nevertheless, Parisse does a fine job of conveying the multiple ways in which brittleness can quickly become vulnerability and how the desperate pursuit to hide vulnerability can end up making it explosive.
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On a trip back to their Harvard dorms, Samantha and Ethan stand outside the door of the room where they first had sex; they’re drunk on nostalgia and fear of the future. They’ve been complicit in a 20-year lie and can’t admit that it has become a part of their identities. They can barely talk; even the camera seems shy of filming them during this moment. It is here when the show reveals what it could’ve been: a sometimes searing, sometimes lyrical look at the challenges of extricating yourself from a lie that you never intended to tell. It’s a moment of emotional clarity that makes the messiness of the show even more disappointing.
The final scene shows a luxury car sinking into a swimming pool. The friends stand around in their best party outfits, watching it, after spending the evening celebrating the anniversary of a marriage whose future is precarious at best. It seems like a fitting metaphor for a show that has so much potential yet achieves so few of its aims. Unlikeable characters serve as fantastic Trojan horses in a story; HBO’s The Comeback used its central character, in all her unlikable glory, to explore the emptiness at the core of the entertainment industry, and Eichner’s own show Difficult People seems increasingly interested in the climates that create and reward unlikeable people.
Sometimes being unlikeable is the fastest route to standing up for yourself, to making a space for yourself in your own life; the space between likeability and personal expression is one rife for dramatic and comedic exploration. Unfortunately, Friends From College happily settles for being the equivalent of overhearing a group of unpleasant friends at a fancy clothing store. You look around for a bit, eavesdrop, then move on.