I don’t like any of the characters in Friends From College, but I think that’s the point

I didn’t know much about Friends From College before I started watching it. I’d seen the link for it on Netflix, but it wasn’t appealing enough to me to click on it for a little while.

In the end, I mostly put it on because I wanted something funny that I didn’t need to focus on and couldn’t think of a specific show I wanted to watch. It did the job, I suppose. It was enjoyable enough and, while I wouldn’t be particularly bothered if it didn’t get a second season, I liked the way it makes you think about relationships.

I feel like some of the humour fell flat for me. Maybe because the core group of protagonists are a good deal older than I am and are going through a stage of life that I’m nowhere near yet. Maybe other reasons.

There was one noteable instance that I found really funny (“You took THREE drugs?”), but didn’t find myself laughing out loud very often.

There were some things I found less funny that I’m now trying to decide if that was the point. For instance, the protagonist Ethan, played by Keegan-Michael Key, has a habit of putting on silly voices when he’s uncomfortable. I didn’t find this especially funny and, for a good chunk of the series, I thought it had been a bit shoehorned in because Keegan-Michael Key liked doing silly voices.

Right at the end of the series, when the main group of friends are struggling to maintain their relationships with each other and things are very tense, one of them has an outburst and tells him that they’re not funny and he should stop. That got me thinking that maybe that was the point all along: that it was a joke to people watching the show, but also kind of annoying, so that you understood when Ethan got yelled at for it.

Although the fact that I’m not sure if that’s the case makes me think that it could’ve been better executed.

There are a couple of other subtle issues that made me feel a little uncomfortable throughout the show.

For instance, the way everyone is just okay with their friend Nick sleeping with women who are barely legal. At one point, two characters are trying to come up with an idea for a young adult novel and they call him up specifically because “he bangs teenagers”. I feel like if I was nearing my forties and someone I knew slept with teenagers, I’d be concerned. I’m only 24 and I don’t like it when my friends my age sleep with teenagers, even if the teenager is legal and the friend is immature.

Another thing that I found a little concerning was the difference between the way the gay and straight relationships were presented. There is quite a lot of graphic heterosexual sex in the show, while the gay couple barely show each other the slightest affection. I understand that their story arc is how Max’s old friends drive a wedge between him and his partner Felix, but I feel like this would’ve had a much greater impact if you’d seen their attitudes towards each other change over the the course of the story.

As it is, it doesn’t make it obvious that the reintroduction of Max’s college friends are the cause of their separation because they don’t seem all that close from the beginning. In the early episodes Felix comes across as awkward and stand-offish and rude, while towards the later episode Max is insensitive and uncaring towards his partner’s needs. They don’t seem like they’re right for each other at any point in the story. Even the characters that are cheating on their partners get moments of love and joy with their spouses to create a sense of conflict.

This is not the case with Max and Felix. You don’t get anywhere near as much of a look into the happy relationship they would have if it wasn’t for this group of middle-aged friends trying to cling onto their youth, although the show acts like you’re supposed to feel that way.

This feels to me like another example of the TV industry’s hesitation to show LGBT characters as fully as it does heterosexual characters. Even in shows where LGBT characters are some of the central charcters, they don’t get the same attention as straight characters. Modern Family faced similar issues when people noticed that, despite being one of the core romantic relationships, Mitch and Cam didn’t get a single on-screen kiss in all of the first season of the show.

I feel like Friends From College fell into much the same trap.

What I found really interesting about the show is the notions is raises about relationships.

The protagonist, Ethan, is married and trying to have a baby with his wife, Lisa. He is also sleeping with his college friend Sam, and has been doing so since before he got together with Lisa. Things get tense when Ethan and Lisa move to Sam’s neighbourhood and Ethan and Sam struggle to break things off.

I liked that they showed that Ethan’s relationship with Lisa and Sam’s relationship with her husband were both quite fulfilling and satisfying. They liked being committed to their partners, but they also liked their affair. I liked that it showed more complicated reasons for why people cheat.

It’s not about not caring for your partner. It’s not about not being prepared to commit to them – after all, Ethan even admits that he doesn’t particularly want a baby, but that he’s prepared to commit to raising a child because he loves Lisa and wants her to be happy. He can simultaneously adore Lisa enough to spend the rest of his life building a family with her, and be selfish enough to lie to her and cheat on her for decades.

The same goes for Sam. Her husband dotes on her and there are moments of genuine love between them. But it doesn’t stop her going back to Ethan. It doesn’t stop her fantasising about Ethan becoming single so that they can get together, even though the two of them have no idea what a relationship with each other would be like aside from secret sex and Sam has become used to a luxurious lifestyle that Ethan wouldn’t possibly be able to live up to if she left her rich husband.

I liked that the show didn’t fall into the typical tropes of adultery. Usually in film and TV, people who cheat in relationships are either justified because they’re cheating on an abuser or are themelves the abuser, shitty partners written as awful as possible so the protagonist can swoop in and be a hero to the person being cheated on.

In this Friend From College, cheaters are just ordinary people, who have the ability to care about people but also the ability to hurt people. They hold this deep cognitive dissonance that tells them that they can carry on lying and cheating, but that doesn’t mean they care any less about their significant others. They are aware that they’re making bad, selfish decisions that would hurt their loved ones if they found out, but they keep doing it anyway.

They’re not inherently bad people, like the romcom douchebag boyfriend villain.

They’re normal people – your friends, your family – who make mistakes and get carried away with them and don’t know how to untangle themselves from the situations they end up in.

Although I liked the way that these characters were presented realistically, I didn’t like them very much as people. In fact, I didn’t much like the core group of friends that are the protagonists, but I think the reasons I didn’t like them were integral to the point of the show.

By reuniting a group of friends who went to college together twenty years ago, the show sees a bunch of forty-somethings behaving like college kids again. They take drugs and stay up all night shooting each other with NERF guns and they put on awful plays and they get really drunk and act like idiots. They’re really annoying.

Which is the point.

It’s the reason that Felix leaves Max – because he’s regressed to an idiot twenty-something when he’s supposed to be a professional adult in a committed relationship now. It’s definitely supposed to be a key theme in the show.

But it makes all the protagonists so inherently unlikeable that it really puts me off.

They’re not unlikeable in the sense that the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are. In Always Sunny, you’re never expected to empathise with them. You can just laugh at them as their terrible behaviour consistently leaves them broke and miserable and alone. They have no redeeming features, so you never feel bad about them not succeeding in their bizarre schemes.

In Friends From College, I get the impression that you are supposed to empathise with the selfish characters at least a little bit. They’re given just enough redeeming motivations that I think you’re supposed to like them. You’re supposed to want them to find a way to be happy.

There are enough moments when it looks like Ethan and Sam’s affair is going to be revealed and they’ll likely both end up divorced. The first, perhaps second, time it happens, you hope that they’ll feel the tension and do the right thing. You understand their hesitation – it’s a big confession to have to make, after all, when you’re in a crucial point of your relationship – but you get sick of them continuing to infringe more and more on decent behaviour after they decided to end things in the second scene of the first episode. You get tired of waiting for them to end it or come clean or do something to at least attempt trying to redeem the fact that they’ve been lying to their spouses for twenty years.

By the end of the series, I got so bored of them consistently stressing about how desperately they don’t want to hurt their partners, but still not stop lying to them or cheating on them, that I just wanted them to get found out and get it over with.

So I find it really difficult to like them. Even if the mistakes they make aren’t particularly far-fetched, and I might ignore it in a real life person, they don’t make for good qualities in main characters.

And it’s not just Sam and Ethan.

Marianne kept Sam’s secret for twenty years, even though she could have prevented all this bullshit from happening if she’s just confronted Sam and Ethan before they got married to other people. Lisa was paranoid that her relationship was Ethan was failing, so instead of talking to him about it, she jumped into bed with another man. Nick proposed to a woman he was using for sex to get back at Lisa, who he’s harboured an obsession with for twenty years without once telling her. Max convinced Ethan to write a story based on an entirly plagiarised idea and did not tell him when he realised his mistake, letting Ethan write a four hundred page draft of a book that would never be published.

Around all of these primary character arcs, they all do inconsiderate things, some of which are criminal. Some of which are just rude and irresponsibile. They tell so many lies. The ones that are being lied to are oblivious to a fault but the lies they are told are not even subtle.

Frankly I don’t blame Felix for getting the fuck out of there.

Almost all of their problems can be solved by having a frank and honest conversation with their friends. The fact that this group of apparently close friends and committed partners can’t just communicate about their problems is so frustating.

I realise that that exact inability is the premise of most romcoms in both film and television, allowing characters to blow simple misunderstandings way out of proportion, but it doesn’t make me like it. And it definitely doesn’t excuse this show for depending so clumsily on such an annoying trope.

If it had been better, I think that this show could have been a funny and pertinent exploration of relationships and humanity. But it wasn’t.

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