Likable cast play unlikable Friends From College

Studios and networks have been trying to ripoff Friends for years. The latest attempt comes from a worthy source: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” writer/producer/director Nicholas Stoller. He was in New York a month or so ago with Cobie Smulders and Fred Savage promoting their new series Friends From College. The eight episode series is available for streaming now on Netflix.

Smulders told me Stoller was the reason she signed on to do the show. The Canadian-born How I Met Your Mother actress has been a fan since attending a table read of “Marshall.” She also liked the script, and the characters and the fact it was shot where she lives, New York.

If How I Met Your Mother was Friends 2.0, however, Friends From College is more Windows 7 Vista. A little buggy, a little less fun and not very compatible.

Smulders not looking happy on Friends From College

Whatever you think of Friends — and it gets more forgettable for me the further back it is in the rear view mirror — the creators of that series hit the jackpot by allowing their likable cast members to play flawed but winning characters. That’s no longer the formula for most TV comedies, with shows such as Love and Louie and Baskets and Fleabag and, going further back, Curb Your Enthusiasm,  almost testing viewers to see how far they can push unsympathetic characters into sitcom situations.

The premise of Friends From College is that these six characters — played by Smulders, Savage, Keegan-Michael Key, Nat Faxon, Annie Parisse and Jae Suh Park — all went to Harvard together and are still close friends as they approach their 40s. Now, a lot of funny people went to Harvard, including Conan O’Brien, Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones and Al Franken. It’s also the alma mater of Stoller and his wife, Francesca Delbanco, co-creators of this series.

On the other hand, Bill O’Reilly is also a Harvard grad.

The six characters on this show all seem a tad jerky and dour. Two of them — played by Key and Parisse — are cheating on their spouses and have been carrying on since their Harvard days. One of the wronged parties here is Smulder’s character. Playing this off for laughs seems awkward from the start.

The only characters you can truly root for, in fact, are the outsiders. Billy Eichner (Difficult People) is deadpan perfect as Savage’s character’s hubby, Dr. Felix Forzenheim. Greg Germann has some of the best lines in the pilot as Parisse’s husband, who has about had it with this precious Harvard brood.

“I know you love your college friends,” he says to his wife Sam (Parisse), “but every time you get together with them you all become a bunch of little bitches, all this sniping and showing off.”

It does get a bit much.

Follow this link for more on Friends From College in this feature I wrote for The Canadian Press.

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