Into every generation a moment is born when its members realize that they are no longer young — no longer the Young People — and that they will grow old and die, etc. Some of them will be inspired to make movies and TV shows from this dark, hilarious realization: epics of midlife crisis, looking back, looking ahead.
"The Big Chill" most famously marked that passage for baby boomers, back in 1983. Now a new passel of performers — barely out of rompers when that film was released — have been assembled for "Friends From College," whose eight episodes premiere Friday on Netflix.
Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders, Fred Savage, Annie Parisse, Nat Faxon and Jae Suh Park play six former Harvard classmates, edging into their 40s and still stuck firmly in one another's lives. Some are more satisfied, some less; some more successful, some less. All have been toting some baggage since their old dorm days, carrying torches for — or carrying on with — one another.
Created by married Harvard alumni Nicholas Stoller ("Neighbors") and Francesca Delbanco (who has a recurring role as an analyst), and directed by Stoller, it is, despite its top-flight cast, something less than the sum of its often ill-fitting parts. If the series bumps along at times as if it had one triangular wheel, it has plenty of funny moments and some genuinely lovely performances.
Ethan (Key) is a novelist, married to Lisa (Smulders), a lawyer; they are about to move to New York from Chicago, where Ethan has been conducting an intermittent affair with their classmate Samantha (Annie Parisse) when she visits town. Now they will be thrown together constantly. Samantha also has a husband (Greg Germann), who did not go to Harvard, and two kids. They are very rich. Ethan and Lisa are not — arriving in New York, they move in, temporarily, with yet another fellow alum, Marianne (Jae Suh Park), a still-aspiring actress and temp worker living in a place she could not possibly afford. Faxon's Nick, who has a trust fund and dates girls half his age, rounds out the picture.
Ethan is the series' unsolved problem. He's insecure, indecisive and lying at various times to two women. He tries too hard to prove he's fun, or fine. This provides plenty of farce — there is a good bit of literal scrambling involved here — but the character has more to carry than either the writing or the performance provides. We have to take his attractiveness on word.
Among other things, nothing of what he's given to do makes Ethan seem like a real writer, let alone a highly regarded, if commercially unsuccessful, one. (As is often the case, the jobs here are largely beside the point.) He doesn't do any of the things real-world novelists normally do to support their writing, but depends largely (and something to his shame) on the financial support of his lawyer wife. He seems to have no friends in the literary world — he did have lunch once with Jonathan Franzen — apart from Max (Savage), who is also his agent. Max has bad news about Ethan's latest book, an attempt at mass market success: "We talked about selling it, and then everyone read it and decided to not sell it."
Although we never quite credit their mutual investment in Key's Ethan, both Smulders (in a role a little reminiscent of Melanie Lynskey's questing character in "Togetherness") and Parisse are convincing from moment to moment, and more moving as the show goes on. ("Friends From College" is worth watching to watch them, as well as for Savage, whom it is good to have back acting; he's oddly touching in a largely whimsical part.)
There are well-staged set pieces (a wedding, a wine-tasting trip) and estimable guests to wake up the action — Ike Barinholtz as a frat-head lawyer, Kate McKinnon as a wealth-addled author of YA novels, Chris Elliott as a mentalist at a birthday party and especially Billy Eichner as Max's boyfriend, a fertility doctor who is particular about his things.
Past that, if you regard the show as a series of unconnected short plays or sketches, rather than as the long-term working out of any of these characters' twisted-together fates, it becomes automatically more successful.
'Friends From College'
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)