A good hate-watch provides enough fodder for complaint, wrapped up in the right amount of story to keep you coming back for more. Entertainment is meant to distract from real life; characters have to be compelling in some small way, because otherwise, why are you paying attention? Hate-watching is theoretically tiresome because of the emotional investment required, but a good hate-watch is equal parts pleasure and torture. With this in mind, Netflix’s most recent offering, the Nick Stoller-directed Friends From College, is a strong contender for hate-watch of the summer. Clocking in at eight short episodes, it’s compact and can be blown through in a lazy weekend; you can watch the whole thing, feel bad about yourself, then slightly better, and then be done with it.
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The plot of Friends From College is simple. Ethan (Keegan-Micheal Key) is a flailing writer of literary fiction who’s married to Lisa (Cobie Smulders), a lawyer who takes a job at a firm staffed by boorish men who mute conference calls with their flaccid penises. They move from Michigan to New York, where the rest of their friend group from Harvard—referred to throughout with grating enthusiasm—currently lives. There’s Marianne (Jae W. Suh), a single artist type who lives in a very nice apartment and acts in very, very bad plays; Max (Fred Savage) who is a floundering literary agent dating Felix (Billy Eichner), a well-adjusted fertility specialist; and Sam (Annie Parisse), who’s married to John (Greg Germann) and is wealthy enough to have a postmodernist cube of a country home deep in the Connecticut woods. Everyone is operating at various stages of arrested development, but Ethan and Sam take the cake: they’ve been having an affair that has lasted for two decades and are terrifically bad at hiding it.
The affair, and their various attempts to keep it a secret, comprise most of the plot, which takes some strange and unnecessary turns to better showcase the characters’ staunch refusal to grow up. As an outsider to the group, Eichner’s Felix is one of the only people in their world who can see their flaws for what they are—adults clinging desperately to their youth as they approach middle age, retirement and, eventually, irrelevance. He serves as a mature bystander, a role that Eichner feels uniquely suited for; less Billy in Difficult People and more like his cameo as a real estate agent in the underrated Neighbors 2. Everyone else flounders around him, spinning their wheels and stuck in the same destructive patterns that are holding them back, while he sits back and wonders how it is they’ve made it this far without blowing their lives up completely.
For a hate-watch to truly be a hate-watch, some aspect must feel a little true to life, because comparing yourself to the characters on the screen is part of the fun. For those of a certain age, still close to their college friends, some aspects of this fictional relationship will feel familiar. There’s a deep comfort in hanging out with people you’ve known for years, slipping into the shorthand of your shared experiences, trading memories. But to do so exclusively is simply living in the past. Activities that are perfectly normal as adults who act like adults are sad when the adults in question are still mentally stuck in a dorm room in Cambridge, swilling cheap wine and talking about Kant.
Not a single character on this show can handle even the smallest responsibility. Ethan, trusted with the simple task of taking Marianne’s rabbit to the vet, ends up leaving the rabbit for dead in the woods and procuring another one. A normal night in with Max and Felix turns into a brainstorming session for Ethan’s YA novel, complete with whiteboard, Adderall and tap dancing. The group takes a party bus on a winery tour of the North Fork of Long Island during which they crash the bus and leave Felix behind for 90 minutes. As a director, Stoller relishes the cringeworthy and deploys it in a way that’s clearly intended to be funny, but the writing isn’t sharp enough to sustain this kind of energy. None of the characters are likable enough for you to fully invest, and their bad behavior is relentless but toes the line of plausibility just enough so that you wonder if you and your friends are ever this bad.
It’s foolish to expect real-life consequences for fictional characters; viewers of shows that purport to show “relatable” scenarios like Girls are intimately familiar with this feeling. But these friends continue to fuck up time and again, in ways that are so galling that it seems insane that they’re all somehow employed and able to afford their glamorous and expensive lives. Part of the hate-watch is frustration—that sense of wanting to throw a shoe or a magazine at the TV in the vain hope that it’ll knock some sense into someone for even five minutes. Friends from College inspires much of the same feeling, but for most of each episode. It’s watchable because there’s a perverse pleasure in seeing how far someone can go in the interest of unintentional self-sabotage. How else will they ruin their lives? How bad will it get before the bottom falls out?
I hate-watched Friends from College partly as a way to check in with myself; some aspects felt familiar enough for me to take notice and to reconsider how I behave with my friends. Watching Eichner’s character Felix, the mature outsider, respond to the way his boyfriend acted around his college friends made me newly sympathetic towards one of my best friend’s boyfriends, who may also feel like he’s babysitting a group of recalcitrant children. (Thankfully, he doesn’t—I checked—but that niggling feeling was enough to propel me through the rest of the season.)
Despite the many shortcomings of Friends from College, there are a few bright spots, including a fairly realistic storyline about the frustrations of the IVF process. The details in the throwaway characters are better—a chef at a birthday dinner explaining an overwrought dish nails the delivery, while Kate McKinnon as a wildly successful, blissed-out YA author provides much-needed comic relief. Other than that, the friends are the worst people you’d meet at a party, all id and bad decisions.
It’s not bad that this show got made, but it is proof of Netflix’s seemingly endless capital and the willingness to throw a random assemblage of stars to the wall and see what sticks. The ending is nebulous enough to leave room for a second season, which I’d welcome if only the show runners toyed with the idea of consequence. But it begs the question: How long can you watch adults fuck up before it becomes anything other than exhausting?
Correction: An earlier version of this post conflated the names of the characters played by Cobie Smulders and Annie Parisse. Additionally, one reference to the show misidentified it as Friends With Money. The show is entitled Friends From College. Jezebel regrets the error.