“Party Bus” · Friends From College · TV Review When Friends from College tries to drink away its sadness, only Billy Eichner really wins · TV Club · The A.V. Club

It didn’t work. That’s the abrupt end to the intense build-up of the fourth episode of Friends From College, in which Ethan and Lisa dashed around New York in desperate hope of completing their IVF treatment properly. Lisa took her final shot, Ethan produced a sperm sample, and Lisa’s surgery was moved around, and… it didn’t work. Lisa didn’t get pregnant. It’s not an unusual result; the odds were not with them. But it is a disappointing one.

Disappointing from more of a creative point of view is the decision of the fifth episode, “Party Bus,” to deal with this aftermath by teeing up a pretty sitcom-familiar plot: One guy in a group of friends wants very badly to give those friends a perfect day of fun. He plans it out almost to the minute. The rest of the group grumbles and makes fun and goes along with it. Eventually they get into the spirit, but in a way that involves deviating from the guy’s original plan, much to his frustration. But eventually everyone kinda, sorta reconciles over the spirit of the effort in all of its half-ruined glory.

The guy here is Ethan, and the ostensible target is a depressed Lisa, but he wants the whole gang to be involved, too; maybe it’s also a secret way of trying to smooth things over with Sam, who is still attempting to wean herself off of their affair. She gets her funniest scene ever early on, opposite her clearheaded therapist: When Sam states her plan to talk to Ethan and end things during their impending group wine-tasting trip through Long Island causes a flurry of scribbles on her therapist’s pad, Sam notices and proclaims with unironic self-impressed bravado that “I hope you wrote down the word ‘breakthrough’!” There aren’t a lot of lines on Friends From College that might fit on an episode of You’re The Worst, but that, by my reckoning, is one.

There are some other good jokes in “Party Bus,” many of which have to do with Ethan’s overeager attempt to buy into the Long Island wine hype that even Long Island wineries are reluctant to support. When Ethan repeatedly floats the promotional copy that some are calling Long Island “the new Napa,” one of the workers on an early wine tour gets defensive, quickly – before revealing that also, he’s sober, so he doesn’t taste the wines he’s touring/serving.

As the episode and the wine-tasting tour drags on, though, the familiarity of the sitcom structure plus the increasingly dissolute characters drags down some of the snappier jokes. Following an episode with a more daring fusion of the show’s darker tones and farcical broadness, “Party Bus” is back to a sloppy hook-up between the two, flailing its way through yelling, marital tension, and sweet drunk-talk. Ethan and Sam eventually have their talk. Ethan and Lisa have a little blow-out. The rest of the characters spend a lot of time in the background, along with the party bus driver who insists his tolerance is heroic, not long before he’s asleep on the ground.

What really works in this episode is Billy Eichner’s portrait of someone wholly on the outside of a two-decade friend group. His Felix has presumably been dating Fred Savage’s Max for a while, but he’s not (like, say, Lisa) a slightly later addition. He’s part of a separate life, and the effort required to feign interest in (or even politely tolerate) five additional non-Max people in his life is starting to wear on him. “Party Bus” offers several different looks at his situation: He shares a quiet, clueless moment with Lisa where he, as her doctor, offers the kind of analytical, neutral-to-negative attempt at comfort that many doctors are known for. He tries to join in on the goofing off when everyone gets wasted. And, finally, he is forgotten by Max and left at one of the vineyards when the gang pushes onward to McDonald’s. When Max remembers and returns, Felix, seemingly as exhausted by this day as anyone else, breaks up with him.

Even this subplot is hobbled a little by Felix’s angry insistence that Max is a “different person” around his college friends. It’s believable, because Max’s friends do stupid things and it’s very much implied that, left to their own devices, Max and Felix do not do stupid things. But Max and Felix haven’t had enough screentime without Max’s friends – hardly any – for this supposed change to really hit home. If anything, Max seems less directly changed by the group dynamic than some of his other friends. Whether he’s trying a secret gastropub with Felix or embarking on an IVF mission or going crazy on a drunken party bus, Max seems pretty willing to go along with his loved ones and follow their sometimes pleasant, sometimes horrific whims. The problem here is that a whole bunch of his loved ones are going in the latter direction, which leaves Felix trying to drag Max the opposite way.

By the end of the episode, when Ethan stands up Sam for one of their hotel trysts, maybe the show is going in a different direction, too. But considering how much of its season has detailed bad decisions and backsliding, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Stray observations:

  • Another Marianne moment of many I enjoyed: Her tearful insistence – while drunk-driving! – that she received an undue amount of yelling for something that, really, everyone on the bus was doing.
  • ’90s track watch: Well, there’s the go-to wistful sadness of Mazzy Star, and the ironic faux-badassery of scoring the group’s (self-made) slow-motion walk to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize.” But that’s not all! The episode concludes with the Stone Roses track “Waterfall,” which is, I must note, not from the ’90s at all. It’s from the band’s 1989 self-titled album. While obviously people who went to college in the mid-’90s wouldn’t be listening exclusively to music released during that period, as a very strange Stone Roses fan I feel like this was a major missed opportunity to choose something from their extremely underrated 1994 follow-up Second Coming, which is (a.) more contemporary with much of the rest of the show’s songs and (b.) I swear on all that is holy, a better album than the 1989 self-titled debut, an opinion shared by virtually no one except… wait for it… a bunch of friends I’ve known for well over 20 years.

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