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Netflix offers group therapy with ‘Friends From College’

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-07-2017 Raja Sen

“His name is L Ron Howard!” It’s an unearthly hour of night, and three drugged-awake men in flashy jogging suits are discussing, for no apparent reason, scientology. It is here that Nick — the one guy bringing up Dianetics and auditing — insists on calling L Ron Hubbard the wrong name. “Why do you know so much about Scientology except the guy’s name?” growls Max, the meekest guy of the bunch. “That’s the easiest part of it! What, did he invent Scientology, like, after he directed Backdraft and Apollo 13?”

I laughed so hard I had to pause Netflix right there.

I must concede that this is not a brilliant line or a particularly insightful bit of comedy. It is, in fact, must more a “you had to be there” kind of laugh, and — even more so — the kind of gag that works only because you are already fond of the people involved. This is not because they’re necessarily warm or bright people, but because you’re already friends with them. Netflix’s new Friends From College is about people like that in our lives. People who entered too early and people it is too late for us to judge.

Created by Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco, the show has picked its cast trading on that very familiarity. These folks we know so well have all cast against type. Cobie Smulders from How I Met Your Mother has the most harrowed role, the versatile Keegan-Michael Key is playing a reckless adulterer, Billy Eichner of Billy On The Street is playing the least shout-y person, and Max, who made me laugh so hard at the start of this piece, might not have managed it were he not played by Fred Savage, as in Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years.

The show is about a group of friends who were at Harvard together and who — in a manner as uninventive as the titling of the show — refer to themselves as “friend group”. Left to themselves, these individuals lead functional lives: Key’s character Ethan Turner is, for example, a highly regarded award-winning novelist. Within the group, however, he’s an embarrassment, stuck in a quicksand-like affair, plus flailing around in derivative Young Adult fiction about werewolves. It’s not just the actors who are cast against type, therefore. This show might look like a comedy and feature slapstick situations and even funny voices, but it really is a cautionary tale.

The problem lies in balancing the tone. It isn’t easy for an out and out farce — where people throw chairs through windows and grown women pretend to be seals for the amusement of their friends — to double up as a dark drama about increasingly bad life choices made from selfish and detached points of view. The laughs come because of the cast — Fred Savage, rocking his butt off to Hanson’s MMMBop, proves himself a star who needs more unhinged roles, and Jae Suh Park’s daftly detached Marianne is a fascinating character we see little of — and they are always uncomfortable laughs, yet the desire to keep things ridiculous as opposed to realistic means the show never goes down the rough-comedy route as darkly as, say, Bojack Horseman or HBO’s brilliant and devastating Togetherness.

As a result, the show’s powerful dramatic moments feel contrived. The show struggles with intense and unforgiving situations — with, for example, one of the most realistic and gruelling depictions of the tribulations that accompany the IVF process — but the need to keep the narrative essentially flippant keeps us from something truly impactful. I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s Melinda & Melinda, which featured the exquisite concept of two playwrights narrating the same story as a comedy and as a tragedy till the comedy is sadder than the tragedy and the tragedy holds more laughs. Friends From College holds on to the laugh track instead of embracing the bleakness inherent in the subject. It works as a hurriedly binged diversion but could have been more.

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A month ago, newspapers and websites read and staffed by thirty-somethings anxious not to be labelled Millenials became keen on a newly coined term, “Xennials”, to describe those who come after the somewhat square Generation Xers and predate the incredibly entitled Millenials. I don’t love the word (to me it sounds too much like someone who liked Xena The Warrior Princess) but still I found myself oddly comforted by the idea that people like me, born between 1977 and 1983 — with “an analog childhood and a digital adulthood” — were being allowed their own “generation”, with room for their own idiosyncrasies.

Comedy, tragedy, call it what you will. At a time when the act of being a grown up has been reduced to the repellent verb “adulting”, we’ll take what we can get. And so will our friends.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. The writer tweets at @rajasen

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