In Defense of Friends from College: How Netflix's Series Nails the Travails of Keeping Old Friends in New Lives

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In Defense of <i>Friends from College</i>: How Netflix's Series Nails the Travails of Keeping Old Friends in New Lives

You don’t have to look much further than the soundtrack for proof of concept.

Netflix’s Friends from College features Nineties accompaniment surgically manufactured from the Counting Crows, Mazzy Star, Oasis, Cornershop, The Sundays and more—if you’re of a certain age, it’s almost guaranteed to get you thinking about people and places you may not have thought about in a long time. The old roommate from college, the high school crush you’re still friends with on Facebook, the people that may not actually fit in your life anymore, but remain part of it nonetheless. And you still love them, both the songs and the people.

There are few greater influences that shape us than those we choose to surround ourselves with. No matter how far we go in life, it can be hard—and sometimes impossible—to move beyond the person you were while figuring out the person you’d become. It’s people that remind us of those versions of ourselves. The younger, more ambitious and idealistic men and women we were, before marriages (and divorces), careers, disillusionment, greying hair and wrinkles started complicating things.

That’s the crux of Friends From College, a theme it explores deftly across its eight-episode first season, despite a critical response that can best be described as less than kind. (Read Paste’s review here.) No, Friends from College isn’t perfect, but the series’ scattered narrative accentuates that theme, rather than burying it. Many critics took aim at the characters themselves, noting the all-star cast, which includes Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Fred Savage, Nat Faxon, Annie Parisse and Jae Such Park, is wasted on these developmentally arrested adults, and that their stories fail to live up to the concept’s potential. I suppose it’s all about the type of story you’re expecting the series to tell.

The real story of Friends from College is the effect we have on people, and the effect they have on us. At the start of the series, the gang is largely splintered and living their own, dysfunctional-but-mostly-normal lives apart from one another (except for the affair between Key’s Ethan and Parisse’s Sam, of course). That all changes when Ethan and Lisa move back to New York and get the gang back together. Despite wherever and whoever they might be all these years later, none of it matters when the group reunites: Sam still condescendingly calls Lisa (Smulders) a “freshie,” dating back to their time in college (and buys her a bed, of all things, just to remind her she’s richer); the guys still childishly grab one another’s balls as a juvenile “secret” handshake, for God’s sake. But who doesn’t revert to one’s younger self when joined once again with old friends? (Okay, maybe not grabbing genitalia to say hello, but still.)

In The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert argues that “the show’s biggest crime is that it overestimates its audience’s tolerance for watching people screw up,” and there’s no doubt pretty much every character in this ensemble makes his or her fair share of mistakes. It’s hard to root for Ethan and Sam when they fail to break off their affair, while Lisa allows herself to revive a college-age crush on Nick (Faxon) that only worsens the state of the marriage. Then there’s Max (Savage), who almost certainly has an unrequited crush on Ethan, and allows that friendship to derail his relationship with Felix (Billy Eichner). Plus, he’s so distracted at work that he inadvertently sabotages Ethan’s new novel. They’re all selfish, sometimes mean, deeply human people crashing into a half-dozen mid-life crises together—even if this were real life and not scripted television, that’s a recipe for disaster, right?

The true downfall of everyone in Friends from College is the challenge of making old friends fit into new lives, but all Ethan, Lisa, Sam, Nick, Max and Marianne (Park) manage to do is tear up their new lives to make room for their old ones. Combining these worlds just doesn’t work, at least not for these people, and they spend eight episodes figuring that out the hard way. This series shines a light on the ways we all change over time, and how sometimes we may not like who we’ve become. Admittedly, its treatment of this theme isn’t entirely subtle. Max spends his 40th birthday at a restaurant that serves extravagantly high-end versions of kid’s food; Ethan abandons his dreams of writing the Great American Novel to write a Twilight knockoff; Lisa works at a firm full of frat bros; Sam actually cries her way through her own 40th birthday party.

Ethan, Sam and Max even make the return to lost youth literal, with a trip to their alma mater, Harvard—a journey marred by the passage of time, yet nonetheless loaded with nostalgic promise. Ethan and Max are inspired to finish the pitch for their book, while Ethan and Sam sneak into their old dorm room to find their initials still hanging over the closet door, just like they had twenty-some years ago. They really could go back, though the security guard who crashes their kiss makes it clear this isn’t their Harvard, or their present, anymore. There is no lesson to learn, only decisions to make, as the people we were and the people we are ultimately collide. How the people who shaped our lives do, or don’t, still fit in them—and the consequences of discovering it’s the latter.

Friends from College is messy in the best ways possible. It’s messy about the people we love, and the force with which we cling to them even when it doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s messy about the ways they shape our lives, for good and for bad. It’s full of stories that might not be the most ambitious, but still feel true to what it’s like to grow up and not yet know what that means. Just crank up the Mazzy Star and enjoy the ride.

Friends from College is now streaming on Netflix.

Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.