'Friends from College' Team on Appeal of Harvard-Inspired Netflix Series

Stars Fred Savage, Cobie Smulders and Keegan-Michael Key reveal what drew them to the project while Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos explains why creators should be optimistic about the fate of their series at the streamer.
David Lee/Netflix
'Friends from College'

Friends from College is a star-studded ensemble comedy, but in many ways the Netflix series all goes back to co-creator Nick Stoller, who developed the show with wife Francesca Delbanco based on their Harvard pals.

"When we all get together, we regress to the age we were when we all met each other and there's something that's always been interesting and kind of fascinating to us about that," Stoller tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We wanted to take that dynamic and push it to an extreme. And it was funny to see these characters who went to this great university not really doing that awesome, like you expect one thing and it's not what you thought."

The Neighbors director was also the primary reason cited by castmembers and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos for making the show.

Fred Savage, who hadn’t acted in years before Stoller brought him onto Fox’s The Grinder, was excited to do more on-camera work with a friend.

"I was really energized as an actor again, so it was kind of a great segue into continuing that aspect of my career with someone who I really respect and trust,” he tells THR.

Keegan-Michael Key says he was intrigued by the "opportunity to do really cringe-worthy comedy” with Stoller, whom Key calls a "master" of such material.

Cobie Smulders, who has mostly focused on film since wrapping How I Met Your Mother, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Nat Faxon, appreciated the short time commitment and feature-like approach of the eight-episode first season.

"Nick sort of pitched it to me as a four-hour-long movie, and we shot it as such," Smulders says. "I really enjoyed jumping on a show that had a truncated order. We read [all of the scripts] before we went into shooting. There's more ease there."

Smulders also had a personal connection to her character "being forced to take a job for a paycheck."

"I've been in that position before," she admits.

Smulders' character's husband (Key) is also having an affair with a college friend (Annie Parisse).

"It is a slow burn throughout the series and I will say that Sam (Parisse) and Ethan (Key) have done sort of an amazing subconscious job of hiding it," Smulders says of how the dalliance affects her character. "It really hasn't been until Sam and Ethan are reunited in New York City and they're in each others' lives on a day-to-day basis that they realize they're having an affair. I think up to that point, to them, it's been a hookup that sort of lasted for 20 years. And now that [my character] is seeing the interactions between the two of them in this new situation, she's questioning stuff but she doesn't really have enough evidence to call anything out, and this is a group of friends that are somewhat incestual anyway so it's hard to really gauge, 'OK is this an affair?' or 'Is this just their relationship?' because there's a closeness between these characters."

As for why their characters have continued their torrid romance for so long, Key and Parisse say they both saw it as a once-a-year interlude while they were living apart.

"It's part of that thing of 'This is how we've always related to each other.' They started out as a college hookup, like friends with benefits, they never had a relationship in college, and I think they just stayed that way," Parisse adds. "And I think part of it was, Sam never really asked herself, 'Do I want this to go further?' So it didn't."

Netflix is launching Friends from College after the streaming giant has canceled a number of programs, but Sarandos tells THR that creators should still take comfort in Netflix's high renewal rate, which he called "higher today than it was when we started."

"Your chances of a long life on Netflix are much higher than they are on any broadcast or cable channel,” he says, pointing to the high ratio of launched to canceled series.

And the chief content officer says that while the main characters are Harvard grads 20 years out of college, the audience for the show is merely "fans of comedy."

"It's a very relatable comedy because it's about friendships and real human frailties that come with never quite growing up," he adds.

Stoller, too, is hoping Friends from College will have a wide appeal.

"I think it is ideally for everyone. I would say people in their late 30s, early 40s are probably going to be drawn to it first, but I do think it has a kind of comedy that is relatable to everyone," he says. "I think The Big Chill, which people talk about sometimes in reference to this, is truly for people who are 40 and I don't think this is necessarily that."

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