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Friends From College takes on YA for some reason

Yes, you can spoof it... but why is this show spoofing it, exactly?

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Photo courtesy Netflix
Photo courtesy Netflix
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Friends From College

Episode 3

Season 1 , Episode 3

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How much does Friends From College know or care about YA literature? This may not seem like the most important question to ask about this show, but then, I didn’t really expect the show to devote so much time to Ethan’s vaguely self-loathing scramble to provide for his family by switching from prestigious but low-selling literary fiction to less fancy but potentially mega-selling young-adult fiction. That’s the focus of Friends From College’s third episode, set off by Ethan’s agent/buddy Max getting him a meeting with a YA publishing scion, which leads to another meeting the very next morning, during which Ethan is expected to pitch her a killer idea for a new book. With his assignment set, Ethan winds up barging in on Max and Felix – who planned to spend a night belatedly catching up on Damages and years of faded watercooler conversations – and pulling a college-style all-nighter to brainstorm.

This is the first episode of Friends From College so far that goes as broad in general as Keegan-Michael Key does in his performance. It’s also the point where the show really reveals itself as a show that’s mostly about Ethan – yes, sort of about his wife and sort of about his mistress, but if, after two episodes with a fair amount of affair drama/farce mixed in, the first somewhat less affair-centric outing also involves Ethan in a mad scramble, then it’s safe to say Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco are more interested in Ethan (or at least Key) than anyone else.

Which brings us back to the YA stuff. We’ve previously learned that Ethan thinks of YA as infantilizing, and also that he’s willing to infantilize a bit if it charges his career (presumably at least partially out of guilt over his cheating on Lisa for their entire marriage). This episode makes it seem like maybe Ethan’s thoughts about YA extend to the writers behind the scenes – and that they’ve done about as much research on the subject as Ethan has.

This is especially noticeable with guest star Kate McKinnon going typically broad – stretching out her body physically, bugging her eyes, focusing on her meat-skewer breakfast with laser-like intensity – as the hugely successful writer and head of a YA imprint who tells Ethan that his pitch will need “bathtub moments,” which she essentially defines as a few parts that will make readers want to masturbate. This is funny on its own, as is McKinnon’s advice about finding ways to make monsters sexy, but it also makes the weird mistake of assuming that young-adult literature is primarily sci-fi/fantasy stuff – basically, that it’s either Twilight or The Hunger Games. And that most of it is Twilight.

Obviously, a nuanced discussion of young-adult literature is not what this half-hour comedy series has in mind. And frankly, I have no real dog in any fights over YA’s respectability. I think it can be great and it can discourage adventurous reading. (Basically, like comic-book movies. Or comic books. Both of which I consume heavily.) There’s no real reason for Friends From College to avoid a little spoofy caricature in favor of broader laughs and/or a second-tier Kate McKinnon bit.

But then again, I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of YA, and even I know that if Ethan has written multiple literary novels with a teenage protagonist (as revealed earlier), publishers and agents would most likely be eager for him to translate that to something on the more realistic end of the YA spectrum. They probably wouldn’t be asking him to think of a monster to sex up for a Twilight ripoff; they’d be asking him to amp up the tension, romance, emotions, or whatever else from one of his more grounded ideas.

The show should know this, too – and probably does. Co-creator Francesca Delbanco is a novelist herself (and, for that matter, she’s also the daughter of a writer who has literally written textbooks on fiction). In that context, the McKinnon character, and Ethan’s frenzied, mercenary approach to devising a new YA franchise, feel like a very specific choice to knock a specific type of writing. Which is fine – it just feels, for a while, like a strange detour for a show that seems like it’s supposed to be about relationships.

That said, the episode brings it around in a pretty strong way, and ultimately made me laugh a lot. It yokes Ethan’s desperate hunger for inspiration (and panic over not finding any) with the regressive aspects of reconnecting with college friends. Hence the night-before-finals-style cram session where Ethan, Max, and eventually Nick (called upon for the advice of his much-younger girlfriend) try to reconcile something monstrous with something sexy. This leads to a whiteboard (and also Beautiful Mind-style window-writing) and discussions about whether a worm could be made sexy enough (“you can’t fuck a tapeworm”) or if a Chippendales dancer could be made scary enough (because of “his life choices”). There’s an electricity in these scenes, as if Ethan (and maybe also Key) is psyched to get other people on his manic level.

Even before the night turns to ADHD drugs and also cocaine and also betting on when pizza slices will fall off the wall, Ethan and Max are alienating Felix through their enthusiastic recollection of their rap-infused campus musical about Monica Lewinsky (pre-Hamilton, they note before wondering if he heard about their production and was influenced by it, as Felix quietly adds with disgust that Lin-Manuel Miranda is much younger than Ethan or Max – point in fact, Felix, he’s only a few years younger!). The way that mild-mannered Max becomes loonier, goofier, and louder around his college friends is one of the show’s stronger details, and Fred Savage plays that material with an effectively sweet wonderment at his friends’ stupid antics. Felix is understandably less enchanted.

The episode comes to a pretty rote conclusion, where the inspiration the guys land on for their YA sexiness is... a wolf. Like in Twilight. The show doesn’t hit the potential joke of them endlessly brainstorming to come up with an old, obvious idea very hard, so it makes me wonder if maybe the writers don’t know that there’s a wolf in Twilight (I mean, it’s unlikely, but either way, their conclusion feels just as rushed as Ethan’s). Maybe there’s some resonance in the way the guys labor so crazily to both regress and do so without much originality, but there isn’t much zing to it. Like its all-nighter, this episode’s rush of jokes come to a shrug of a conclusion: A little more McKinnon shtick, and back to business as usual. The next episode, though, gets a little more ambitious.

Stray observations:

  • There’s a girls-night subplot to this episode, too, with Lisa, Sam, and Marianne out at a bar and interacting with some creepy old men, but it’s not an especially well-balanced episode; the guys dominate, even though they spend most of the time screwing around.
  • ’90s track watch: The mid-’90s alt-rock is appropriately strong with this episode, which features “Cannonball” by The Breeders and what I’m pretty sure was “Terrible/Perfect,” a relatively deep cut from Built To Spill (I like Built To Spill but I’ve listened to There’s Nothing Wrong With Love many times more than I’ve listened to any of their other records).
  • Billy Eichner shouts! He’s brought to the brink by his boyfriend and company yelling endlessly when he has surgery to perform the next morning. But his final, frustrated outburst of GET OUT! doesn’t sound like that familiar old Eichner shouting, which would be right at home in the guys’ brainstorming session. It’s almost like he’s a pretty good actor or something!