In the second episode of Friends from College, Sam (Annie Parisse) and Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) meet at Manhattan’s famously unpopular Jekyll & Hyde restaurant during the day. Considering the fact that the place is largely seen as a tourist trap, their hope is that it will be the perfect place to discuss their long-standing extramarital affair without running the risk of bumping into anyone they know. The symbolism is more than a bit on the nose.
And yet, not long into their discussion about a passionate kiss at a recent party celebrating the return of Ethan and his wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders), to the five boroughs, a college friend recognizes Key’s character and nearly blows their cover. It’s a moment that confronts an illusion that both Sam and especially Ethan have bought into over their years of meeting in Chicago hotel rooms for illicit thrills, a belief that their desire to be with one another is somehow separate from their regular lives and not a direct result of their uncertainty or boredom with their everyday existence. And much of what Nicholas Stoller‘s often uproarious miniseries circles around throughout its eight episodes is a simultaneous denial and indulgence of the competitive, immature id in people who take great pride in their belief that they are “adults.”
Stoller pitches much of these outbursts and fractures in the mature facades of Sam, Lisa, and Ethan, as well as fellow college friends Marianne, Nick, and Max, as an inability to let go of the grudges, one-upsmanship, and early personas they adopted in college. The director, who has shown a knack for darker show-business comedy fare in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, underlines that in a series of images and scenes that depict adult behavior and undermine it at the same time. The Jekyll & Hyde scene would qualify, with the restaurant’s mix of the horrid and the ridiculous reflecting both Ethan and Sam’s relationship and their moral struggle with their infidelities. In another scene, Ethan and Max (Fred Savage), his best friend and agent, play an intense game of tennis, punctuated by over-the-top, guttural exclamations with every forceful return.
Ethan and Sam’s clandestine affair constitutes the primary relationship in the series, but Stoller and co-creator Francesca Delblanco bring out a variety of shades in the other characters and their own desires. Lisa arrives in New York with a new corporate job with a hedge fund, one that turns out to be overrun by loud, misogynistic bros who are never more thrilled than when they get to put their penis on an inanimate object or watch their brethren do just that. Bar-hopping with trust-fund-draining loafer Nick (Nat Faxon), she doesn’t so much indulge as drink away the stress and disappointment of a professional life gone awry. She’s also adamant about having a baby with Ethan, which itself could be seen as either a denial of her marriage’s rocky state or a strident belief in that very same thing. Similarly, Max begins to overstep boundaries with his longtime boyfriend, played by a scene-stealing Billy Eichner, to keep things close with Ethan.
Working with DP John Guleserian, who is also the main DP on Hulu’s Casual, Stoller creates a glossy, atmospheric aesthetic that gives each fight and physical joke an alluring, composed space to play out. Indeed, much of Friends from College would come off as overly familiar if not for the sheer amount of big, boisterous belly laughs that the brilliant cast and sharp writing staff conjure in between the melodrama. Eichner, who plays a fertility specialist, has an inspired, revealing bit with Key and Smulders in which he throws out a variety of warnings, half of which are meant as jokes but sound serious. In another sequence, Ethan is unable to withhold a nervous tic when he gets a meeting with a wealthy YA bestseller (Kate McKinnon) through Max. Then there’s the unfortunate incident with a black-eyed bunny, beloved spirit animal of aspiring actress Marianne (Jae Suh Park).
The series returns to volatile emotions and connections that were forged during their more uninhibited college years, and Ethan and Sam are just the most extreme case of their unresolved tensions and behaviors. For all the appealing virtues of the tight, textured compositions, there is a sense that looser filmmaking and a greater emphasis on performance pushed to its limits might have brought out bigger, more visceral emotional confessions and outbursts. Friends from College behaves itself for the most part, though there are numerous confrontations with these people embracing their most ugly, desperate, and uninhibited impulses. It’s also smart enough to realize that there is something genuinely appealing about following those impulses, and that they could very well lead to a healthy place despite the scathing roots of the relationship.
As an extension of the same concerns Stoller explored in his best films, Friends from College shows immense empathy and love for those who can’t help but get riled by the ghosts of good times. Stoller and his creative team go even further to admit that its rarely clear if one’s desires come from nostalgia or genuine, pointed passion. It makes fools of these people and they are often willing enough to hurt their most loved friends and family to evade facing their regrets, but Friends from College boasts a confidence that what looks like immorality is often just a vaguely more respectable form of immaturity.
Friends from College will be available to stream on Netflix in full on July 14th.