'Friends From College' Creators Respond to the Crazy Finale & Tease Season 2
"My favorite treat, when I'm a crazy person, is going on Twitter and finding stuff like, 'Just watched all eight episodes of Friends From College -- hated it,'" says writer-director Nicholas Stoller. "Well, why did you watch all of it?"
The new Netflix series, created by Stoller (Neighbors, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and his wife, Francesca Delbanco, follows six alumni who reconnect in New York roughly two decades after leaving Harvard. Punctuated with lies and affairs, the surprisingly dark reunion has so far earned mixed reviews -- maybe early critics were expecting something else, maybe some found it too real.
The good news is Stoller and Delbanco aren't fazed. They believe their show's prompting fiery reactions because "it's touching on something." To learn more about that something, we called the duo to discuss complaints, that crazy finale, and hopes for Season 2.
Thrillist: I went into this expecting an ensemble comedy, but it's more of a fucked-up love story. What made you guys want to pursue that as the crux of Season 1?
Francesca Delbanco: We were always interested in thinking about this show as a comedy and a sad story. We both feel like those genres can be blended really well. The show's not like a straight-up sitcom, which seems to be really surprising to a lot of people. [Laughs.] But we didn't set out to make a straight-up sitcom. It's not like that was our intention and then it accidentally became sad.
Nicholas Stoller: I think when something's emotionally complex, like life, I just laugh harder. One of my favorite comedies is Sideways. It's very, very funny, but it's also sad.
Delbanco: There's obviously a place for light TV, where the dilemma is your downstairs neighbors being too noisy. But for us, we wanted to tell thematic stories about middle age. There's no way to tell those stories without some of them being really sad.
A lot of the early reviews have called the characters unlikable. Do you think your characters are unlikable?
Delbanco: I don't know what this says about us as people -- and the rest of our writing staff -- but I don't. I find them all deeply flawed, and I find that they are doing the best they can and sometimes giving way to their worst and more selfish impulses. But I recognize that in myself and in my friends who I love very dearly. I've never met a person who is just likable and funny. I've met many people who are that way superficially. But we were trying to do the opposite of a casual context: the friendship stories of people you know really, really intimately, warts and all.
Yeah, it's awful that Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key) and Sam (Annie Parisse) are having an affair, but I also found an element of their relationship to be heartbreaking. They married the wrong people, and they'll probably never be together.
Delbanco: There's something a little bit to the idea that people don't want to acknowledge that we all have these sides of ourselves. Maybe not. Maybe [Nick and I are] the only ones who do and we're completely out of step...
Stoller: They just really question what comedy on TV is supposed to be! [Laughs.] People have no issue with one of my favorite shows ever, Mad Men -- in the pilot, [Don Draper] has a double life, essentially. I think in drama there's more acceptance. Maybe people want the more idealized version of their lives in comedy? I have no idea.
Delbanco: Or something that is just lighter. I totally respect that. There are times when I'm exhausted, and things are not going my way, and I feel sick, and I want to turn on the TV, and have the warm blanket of How I Met Your Mother or something. I think there is a role for that kind of TV, but we were interested in trying something different, and it doesn't fit neatly into the sitcom box.
Did you pursue that different direction because you feel like it's missing from the TV landscape?
Delbanco: We wanted to do something that we, and our friends, wanted to see, if that makes sense? When we showed Netflix the script, with the first scene that's an extramarital affair, and nobody is being sent to hell for it, they were like, That's great! So we thought, Wow, this is an amazing opportunity. We shouldn't squander it.
Stoller: And honestly, before all the reviews came out, we were like, [The affair's] a sexy hook! In addition to it being sad and thought-provoking, we were trying to make an entertaining four hours. Not just a bummer. That's done so much in dramas, so we were like, Why can't we tell a more complex story about friends in the half-hour sphere? You're allowed to do that in comedy movies. We always expected some sort of division, because people want different things out of what they're going to watch. And when you see this cast, you assume it's going to be one thing and it's slightly different. But the reaction certainly was a bit of a surprise.
Delbanco: It also does feel, to us, like this show is still finding its audience.
I'm wondering if that's because of the tone, which falls on a unique place on the comedy-to-drama spectrum. Even episode to episode. What were those conversations like in the writers' room?
Delbanco: I'm a novelist, and I'm really interested in characters, so I was often the person in the room who was pushing things in a more dramatic direction. Sometimes the rest of the writers would be like, Ugh, no, gross! This is uncomfortable and soap opera-ish and maudlin. Nick comes from a world of very hard comedy and has been trained in writers' rooms for the past 20 years, so he would sometimes be pitching set pieces that would never happen, and I would be the voice saying, 'No! No, no, no, adults would never do this! Pull it back.' We tried to get both of those things in. That balance is very delicate, and it's something we would constantly have to reexamine.
Stoller: My view of life is essentially comedic. Both my grandparents passed away over a weekend -- my grandmother on a Friday and my grandfather on a Monday. All my dad did was make jokes, so that's the way I've processed the world. When I see something that is purely dramatic, I don't buy it. It doesn't reflect reality as I see it. That's why Mad Men or The Sopranos, in addition to being great dramas, are hysterical. People are weird, and their behavior in stressful situations is always odd.
Like Ethan doing his uncomfortable voices.
Delbanco: Yeah, [laughs] that's a good example of us trying to figure out, Is this too far?Is this too broad? But you have Keegan-Michael Key in your show, so you can't not let him do something funny.
So is that you guys compromising in the writers' room, or is that something Keegan would have pitched or improvised on set?
Stoller: We were shooting the scene in Fred's office, and I said, "You're getting so nervous, just do some weird voice." And he did the voice you hear, which is so funny. Fortunately, we shot that scene toward the beginning of production so it became a runner. But Keegan, in general, was interested in doing the show because he was an actor who got into sketch after training as an actor. So he just went for it and played this complicated character who's also funny, the way people are in real life.
Delbanco: Another thing that struck us about the show that we didn't think about until it launched: The actors who are in it are just such beloved and sweet actors who are usually associated with such wonderful, comic, light work that I think what attracted them to the show is that these characters are all meaty roles with bad and good in each of them. So I think that's another reason why people had a different expectation of what this would be, because they saw the faces of their old favorite friends from sitcoms.
Tonally, it kind of reminded me of this British show, Flowers, which is also sad and populated by morally gray characters. It's the type of thing that can be hard to watch, but at the end of the day, I think it's great more dark dramedies are getting made.
Delbanco: We do too!
Stoller: Yeah, two of our favorite shows are Catastrophe and Fleabag. Tonally, they're not that different from our show. We were just like, Oh, we want to do that, but with a friend group.
Yeah, there's a lot of cringe humor in here.
Delbanco: There are some scenes in the show that are so lame it's impossible for us to even watch. There's that moment when Fred Savage and Keegan-Michael Key give you a taste of the Monica Lewinsky musical and Billy Eichner's watching? I had to look away.
How do you write a scene like that, that's so painfully awkward? Does it have to make you cringe in the writers' room for it to be successful?
Stoller: What's funny about the Monica Lewinsky musical is that originally they were going to perform the musical in the finale. One of our writers is a really good songwriter, but as we were trying to write the musical it was never funny. It was awful. And as we were headed toward shooting it -- we shot this toward the end of production, and this was one of the few big things we changed -- I was like, I don't know what's funny about them doing this musical. So we came up with this idea that they just fight about it, and it seemed much funnier to never see this terrible thing.
Delbanco: All of those horribly embarrassing things would all make us really squirm in the writers' room. I think there's sometimes a confusion that we think something cringeworthy is funny, but it's an inside joke and the audience resents it because they're not part of it. But we meant all that stuff to be horrible and painful and hard to look at.
Stoller: Like on The Office, you know? The Office, to me, was one of the great recent broadcast sitcoms. It's inherently kind of sad, about these people who don't want to be together but have to and make the best of it. The awkwardness of that is hysterical.
That's kind of how I felt about the finale. I don't think anybody actually wanted to be there. Where did the inspiration for the mentalist come from, and why was that the best way to facilitate Lisa's confession?
Delbanco: We wanted it to be an event, where there were special things that kept happening and destroying everyone. We've been to 40th birthday parties in L.A. that have had all different kinds of entertainers: synchronized swimmers in somebody's pool or an air guitarist or -- we went to a 40th birthday party once that had this little station where you would walk up to these people who would look at you silently and then type up an assessment of who they thought you were. It was the most unnerving and bizarre thing.
Stoller: Yeah, and in our heads, Lisa was going to make her reveal no matter what. But we needed something that would make it happen in a public way. Also, I just wanted to meet Chris Elliott. [Laughs.] He's the funniest person.
Lisa ends the series by telling Ethan, "I think we should take a break." It seems like that also applies to everyone else in the friend group. Where can we expect to see these characters if you get a second season?
Delbanco: Yeah, in a move that was hopefully subverting people's expectations, it's not that the main affair is revealed, it's that something else is revealed. All these relationships seem untenable to the people who are in them.
Stoller: The power dynamic of an affair also changes when someone's suddenly available. That, to us, seems like an interesting thing to play around with, in terms of Ethan and Sam. If he and Lisa aren't together, that's probably gonna make Sam not want to be as involved. Also, since the season doesn't take place over an enormous amount of time, all these characters, who are logical people, probably want a break from each other. At least before being drawn back together, like moths to a flame, so we can see the good reasons -- I think we saw a lot of bad reasons this season -- that they need and love each other.
Why is Sam's life left intact?
Delbanco: We actually had an alternate ending we were going for for most of the writing season that was going to leave Sam boxed in with a huge, Now what do I do? Is my life totally blown up? moment.
Stoller: But it seemed false.
Delbanco: It seemed interesting to figure out what she wants to do, not paint her in a corner where she has to confess her affair. How will she proceed when she has choices to make?
Stoller: Yeah, everyone in this show is making choices. We never wanted there to be a deus ex machina.
And who does Ethan want to be post-break?
Stoller: He was the golden child of the group -- on the road to becoming a big, famous novelist. But then he and his wife got to a place in their life where they needed to make money to get the things they wanted. So he's in the middle of a mid-life crisis, where he has to pivot. I think he was excited to be back with the friend group, but he didn't understand how being around everyone all the time could be destructive until it happened. I think he now recognizes that this isn't the healthiest situation.
This interview has been condensed and edited.