‘I am 40 years old. The drawbridge is going up, man. It’s now or never for me,” says a panicked Keegan-Michael Key in Friends from College, Netflix’s self-explanatory new sitcom. As a young man, Key’s character, Ethan, was destined to write the Great American Novel; now he’s trying to get his head around writing YA fiction, which brings him to the shocking revelation that he is no longer a young adult himself.
For viewers of a similar demographic, Friends from College might well be too close for comfort. The fact that Ethan and his buddies are entitled Harvard graduates makes them easier to laugh at, but this is Generation X heading into middle age, and they’re really not handling it well. Created by Nicholas Stoller (director of Bad Neighbours and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and a fortysomething Harvard graduate himself) and his wife, Francesca Delbanco, Friends from College is a sitcom about people who probably watched Friends at college, when they should have been finishing their essays. Culturally, it knows how to push all those 1990s buttons: The soundtrack includes Pavement, the Stone Roses and the Sundays; Fred “Wonder Years” Savage is in the cast; and there are references to Hacky Sacks, Coolio and Monica Lewinsky.
Watch the trailer for Friends from College.
As students, Ethan and his buddies partied together, slept together, goofed around together and agonised about the future together. Fast-forward 20 years and they’re basically doing exactly the same thing, which is less of a good look. They’re still having affairs with each other; their careers are still works in progress (unless you count acting in an am-dram gender-reversed production of Streetcar a respectable job); they’re only just thinking about settling down and having children (and realising it’s too late); and they still leap at any chance to literally party like it’s 1999. They describe their wine-tasting trip as “adult spring break”. In one episode, they leap at the chance to go back to college; in another, the women party with a bunch of 80-year-old men, which makes them feel like spring chickens again. The Big Chill looks like a meeting of Victorian church elders compared to this lot. “Every time you get together with them, you all become a bunch of little bitches,” Savage’s non-college boyfriend tells him.
It used to be that by the time you hit 40, your life was over; now when you turn 40, it’s really just your youth that’s over. Go back half a century and 40 was ancient. Look at Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. The drawbridge had gone up for her long ago: married, financially secure, college-age children, and nothing to look forward to except grandmotherhood and death. Mrs Robinson was also 42 years old (although Anne Bancroft was only 35 when she played her). No wonder the baby boomers turned to alcoholism and infidelity and overcompensatory sports cars.
By comparison, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, Generation X had it easy – possibly too easy. The major equality battles had already been won, life expectancy was higher, parents were richer, college tuition was more accessible, and there was no internet to burst their bubble or destroy their music industry. In their movies, 40-year-olds were still the square oldies. They were John Lithgow’s Bible-thumping dad in Footloose (Lithgow was 39 at the time); they were the principal in The Breakfast Club; or they were the dads whose pristine, mid-life crisis sports cars were wrecked by their teenage sons in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business. Basically, Gen-X teens looked at their parents’ lives and thought: “No thanks.” Instead, they prolonged their “youth” well into their late 30s, becoming slackers and stoners and man-children and pop-culture geeks. They stayed in denial.
Could it be that film and TV-makers of the same age are also in denial? What Friends from College throws into relief is how little this distinct new flavour of midlife crisis has been addressed. So many Gen-X auteurs have essentially avoided growing up along with their audience, preferring to retreat into all-out juvenilia (Kevin Smith, the Farrelly brothers, Adam Sandler) or at least semi-abstract playfulness (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson). The closest Anderson has come to addressing middle age is probably Fantastic Mr Fox, for whom the prospect of late-parenthood, middle age and a career change from chicken-thieving to, er, journalism triggers something of an existential crisis: “Who am I? … Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle?”
Judd Apatow tried to broach the subject with This Is 40, even if its honest truths came bubble-wrapped in baggy, improvisatory comedy. His semi-sequel to Knocked Up presented modern middle age as an era of dwindling passions, parenting issues, financial burdens, haemorrhoids and mammograms. And, yes, denial: Leslie Mann repeatedly lies about her age on her medical records, and demands her husband celebrate their joint 40th birthday alone, since she’s officially “38”.
It is interesting to look at the work of Richard Linklater, whose Slacker nailed the whole 1990s youth mindset. Linklater has regularly focused on youth, with retro college comedies such as Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, or his great coming-of-ager Boyhood. But, consciously or unconsciously, Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy captured something of his generation’s maturing process almost in real time. Over the course of the trilogy, another writer named Ethan (Hawke) and Julie Delpy progressed from carefree twentysomethings with all the time in the world to stroll through the night discussing art and love and big stuff, to bickering fortysomethings whose accumulated baggage means they can no longer live in the moment, and now spend their time reminiscing, wondering what they’ve become and where the romance went.
If there’s a film that defines the Gen-X midlife “don’t call it a crisis” , it would have to be While We’re Young by Noah Baumbach. As with Friends from College, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts’s childless, responsibility-light couple only come to realise they’re no longer “young adults” any more when they meet some actual young adults, in the form of arch-hipsters Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. While the fortysomethings think they’re so on trend with their MacBooks and iPhones, the hipsters are playing board games and writing on typewriters and unironically listening to Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger on cassette. “It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out,” says Watts.
At first Stiller and Watts find it rejuvenating being down with the kids, but the cracks start to show – and this is where the generational downsides come into play, especially for Stiller, who’s a struggling documentary-maker. His father-in-law is also a documentary-maker, but being a baby boomer he came up in an age where that could earn you a comfortable living and a retrospective-worthy career. Driver is also a film-maker, but he’s young and flexible and in tune with the zeitgeist. Stiller is stuck in the middle. The drawbridge has gone up for him.
The friends in Friends from College find themselves in a similar place – no longer students but not exactly grownups, either – at least not by their parents’ measure. Every generation must go through this, of course, but the last thing that Generation X – which has grown up on its own myths of exceptionalism and outsiderhood and perpetual “alternative” status – wants to hear is that its fears and hopes might be just the same as everybody else’s once they reach a certain age. At least now someone is breaking it to them.