Here’s a small way that sitcoms have changed over the last couple of decades: It used to be that a “wedding episode” of a comedy would tend to involve a regular character on the show getting married. I’m sure the move away from this didn’t literally begin with Seinfeld, but that show’s explorations of social minutiae certainly helped usher along the idea that even in sitcoms, weddings might be less of a monumental life-changing event, perhaps depicted in a two-parter or hourlong special, and might be more of an obligation – a glimpse at characters outside of whatever social or familial circle the show focuses on.
By now, the boom in wedding attendance that many people experience roughly between the ages of 25 and 30 is its own kind of sitcom episode, and I give credit to Friends From College for trying to capture an even less merry echo of the 25-to-30 wedding boom. It’s right there in the title: “Second Wedding” is about the gang attending the lavish wedding of another college buddy, who has left his wife for this new partner. But instead of weaving the characters’ own anxieties – Max’s desperate attempts to quell his missing of Felix; Ethan and Sam’s misguided affair; Lisa’s hatred of her job and depression over her fertility issues – into this sorta-blessed event, the show has them (not unexpectedly) opting to yell over them, whenever possible.
The head of the loudness brigade is once again Keegan-Michael Key, and his character’s new/old persona Fun Ethan – the guy who comes out at parties and makes sure everyone has a kick-ass time. He’s a lot like regular Ethan, but louder. More promising is the only real hint of negativity that Cobie Smulders has allowed to break through her role as the most broadly (which is to say relatively) sympathetic character: Judge Lisa, who is Not Having It with their friend rewarding his infidelities with a celebration of the new life he wants to start, even before she starts to see how this might apply more directly to her life.
“Second Wedding,” as with almost all Friends From College episodes so far, has some funny business, though this one gets a lot of it from an outside source: Co-creator Nicholas Stoller enlists his buddy Seth Rogen to play yet another Harvard alum, Party Dog – the kind of instantly lovable wild man who Fun Ethan is clearly striving to emulate, whether he admits it or not. The running gag of Party Dog receiving huge laughs, applause, and accolades for just about anything he says or does, no matter how inane or meaningless, speaks volumes about the way his reputation precedes him. Fun Ethan might have a glimmer of a reputation among his circle of besties, but it’s clearly not the cult of personality enjoyed by Party Dog.
This is made funnier by Rogen, who has a way with dialogue that may actually have become underrated during his ascent from unlikely movie star to full-fledged writing/directing/producing/acting Hollywood titan. I have no idea, of course, if Party Dog’s exchange with Ethan about men in uniform (and what constitutes the kind of uniform that ups a woman’s desire) is a Rogen/Key riff on a written line, Rogen’s own contribution, or exactly what was written on the page. But Rogen has a gift for making that kind of dialogue sound both genuine and hilarious, no matter where it originates. Sort of like an actually-talented Party Dog, come to think of it.
Party Dog has such power over wedding guests that he even manages to redeem Max’s toast, an unsolicited speech that his friends all try to talk him out of before his countenance changes from happy-go-lucky to forceful, insisting that he needs to concentrate on this to keep his mind off of his ex-boyfriend. Though he starts by interrogating the groom about why he was left out of the wedding party, somehow – seemingly thanks at least in part to the presence of Party Dog – Max’s dumb and/or inappropriate jokes start landing with the crowd, and he improbably drops the mic on a rapturously well-received speech. Fred Savage once again proves himself an MVP of the show, playing a guy whose sheer enthusiasm for basically whatever may be powering him through a fair amount of incompetence.
Ethan, though, I have less of a handle on than ever. Why does Party Ethan come out in such force, shortly after the events of “Party Bus”? Doesn’t that episode make this one a little redundant until it gets to the soap-opera semi-revelation of Lisa noticing something may be amiss in Ethan’s “friendship” with Sam? Does it really make sense that Ethan would become madly jealous and indiscreet because Party Dog is flirting with Sam? If he’s this bad at the affair stuff, how the hell did it last for 20 years?
The moments that prompt these questions aren’t necessarily any bigger than the bits with Party Dog or Max’s toast, at least in terms of screentime. But they compound in ways that the funnier stuff never really does. Somehow, the wedding episode makes the world of Friends From College feel smaller and more smothering. Extra characters are just fodder for caricature, or there to stare stonily at Fun Ethan when his antics don’t pan out. There’s plenty of potential for sharp observation in the kind of de facto college reunion that an early-middle-age wedding provides, but Friends From College doesn’t really zero in on anything. Instead, it just magnifies the uninteresting infidelity conversation – and muddles it, because it’s so hard to tell whether we’re supposed to think Ethan and Sam might actually have a (gag) future together. “Second Wedding” winds up disconcertingly close to Party Dog himself, expecting laughter and applause just for showing up and doing what it does.
- More Marianne ephemera: She doesn’t RSVP to weddings. She isn’t even aware that it’s customary to do so. She also is wholly uninterested in marrying poor visiting Tag, the sorta-boyfriend who the other friends half-accidentally, half-spitefully encourage to propose.
- ’90s track watch: I’m a little disappointed to report that the show didn’t make any of its wedding songs fit its ’90s theme; maybe I missed something, but I only recall “Uptown Funk” and “The Electric Slide” featured heavily on the dance floor. But the episode does open with the Eels classic “Novocaine For the Soul,” and dips its toes just outside its decade of choice when it busts out “Gravity Rides Everything,” off of Modest Mouse’s 2000 album The Moon And Antarctica, towards the end. I don’t want to backseat music-supervise (just kidding; I totally do) but I would have really liked to hear “City Of Ashes” soundtrack a higher-tension moment in this series, and I’ve always preferred the Eels song “Last Stop: This Town” to “Novocaine,” though maybe I should just hope those two tracks turn up in a different series down the line.