Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller’s star-studded Netflix original makes better use of its cast in a sharper Season 2.
Hey, it worked! A comedy with all the right pieces, which were pushed and pulled into all the wrong places, got the time to learn, adjust, and grow. Season 1 of Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco’s “Friends From College” was a messy disappointment, making Season 2 is a charming surprise. It’s almost like time, patience, and talent are … virtues? Like TV creators often need a little trial and error to crack their projects? Like this is how TV is supposed to be made?
Not that any of these characters would know it. Still revolving around a group of dysfunctional, self-centered friends, the second season of Netflix’s comedy lays out the hard truth fast and often — taking its cue from Felix (Billy Eichner) during the opening scene. As he and Max (Fred Savage) rehearse a (pretty great) dance routine for their impending nuptials, Felix has to explain to their instructor why his fiancé is so worried about all his friends being in the same room again.
“All of his straight married friends were sleeping with each other,” Felix says. “It was very scandalous.” That, in essence, sums up Season 1 for anyone who missed it, and his next line perfectly evokes the consensus critical and cultural reaction: “Two words: epic shitshow. People did not like it.”
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Friends From College” Season 2, streaming now on Netflix.]
That should change in Season 2. So much of “Friends From College” Season 1 is about hiding, lying, and faking. The series began by showing Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and Sam (Annie Parisse) in the throes of their adulterous affair, and the following eight episodes danced around Ethan not telling his wife, Lisa (Cobie Smulders), Sam not telling her husband, Jon (Greg Germann), and the rest of their friends not getting too caught up in their toxic relationships that they, too, fall prey to cheating.
Of course, they do, which only makes the stunted situational comedy increase in awkwardness tenfold, crushing itself under the pressure of not spilling the beans, hinting that the beans exist, or talking about feelings related to the beans. The charms of this extremely charming cast were bent to the point of breaking as they strained to do things with their faces, bodies, and mise-en-scene since they’re not allowed to say much of anything with their mouths.
In Season 2, they can and do say everything. Even the secret that started it all, which was inexplicably held back at the end of Season 1 when all the others came spilling out in those final, confounding minutes, is now out in the open. Lisa (and everyone else) knows about Sam and Ethan’s affair, the couples are all separated or going through couples’ therapy, and the group is permanently disbanded. The only reason they’re coming together is for Max’s wedding, and you better believe they’re ready to throw a few choice words at each other.
The show — and the cast — delight in the newfound freedom. Keegan-Michael Key ditches the obnoxious persona of “Fun Ethan” (“He’s dead and buried,” Ethan says in the first episode); Jae Suh Park comes to life as the blunt-talking wild card, always ready to force a delicate confrontation or surprise everyone with a pithy revelation. Cobie Smulders excels as the pissed-off, coldly hurting victim, making you feel the damage wrought around her (and wrought herself). Fred Savage whispers caustic asides that are meant to be heard, while taking on an ensemble’s workload of physical comedy unto himself.
There are still aches and pains along the way, especially when the audience is asked to root for any of these couples to succeed. So much pernicious behavior and oblivious errors make it hard to believe any pairing makes the individuals better. (Plus, the audience cues that Ethan is meant for Sam, and Lisa is meant for Nat Faxon’s Nick, can feel forced.) But by the end of the season, when the group has faced its own self-destructive tendencies and lived to gather again for dinner, the last-minute twists and turns actually carry some weight.
The final shot of Sam is silly to the point of mocking her, let alone her relationship, but six of the seven arcs are on sturdy ground with potential for further growth. That’s an impressive upgrade when looking back at who was worth tracking after Season 1. (Hint: It was six less than now.) In the mad flood of content, sometimes it feels like you have to ditch a broken show instead of considering if it can be fixed — only the best (or most appealing) has a chance to breakthrough. Thankfully, Netflix took a page out of the old network playbook and trusted “Friends From College” to get better (that, or a buttload of people watched Season 1). Consider it the “most improved” show of 2019, even if the year is still young.
“Friends From College” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.