- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 12, 2017

NEW YORK (AP) - Six friends from college find themselves reunited, picking up shared lives 20 years after graduation day. But along with the familiar camaraderie, they encounter new complications and conflicts.

Have the times passed them by? That’s the question asked and answered with amusement by “Friends From College ,” a new eight-part comedy to be released Friday by Netflix.

The viewer-friendly cast includes Fred Savage, Nat Faxon, Annie Parisse and Jae Suh Park, plus Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) and Keegan-Michael Key (“Key & Peele”) as now-wed friends from college Lisa and Ethan Turner.

“Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s a DARK comedy,” says Smulders over a light-hearted lunch alongside Key. “These friends have a tight relationship, but there’s an ever-changing scenario they have to deal with on the fly.”

“The darkness keeps it honest,” Key adds after warding off Smulders‘ razzing for the excess pepper he has showered on his clam chowder.

At the heart of the story: Key, as a once-promising novelist, has been enjoying a friends-with-benefits connection since college with Parisse’s character, Samantha, who by now is likewise married as well as a mother. For years Ethan and Sam lived hundreds of miles apart, allowing only the rare hookup. Now, how will they handle life in the same city in the same tight social circle?

“I remember being on set and thinking, ‘Should this be FUNNY?’” says Smulders. “I’ve been with my husband for 12 years” - actor and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Taran Killam, whom she married in 2012 - “and if infidelity came into my life it would be heartbreaking and tragic.”

Fortunately, “Friends From College” eases this threat, and the rest of the action, with a shrewd mix of smarts and loopiness. (Just TRY being mad at Ethan for cheating on his wife, however lovely and devoted she may be, when it’s Keegan-Michael Key playing him!)

“There isn’t a lot of judging in how it’s written or how the parts are played,” says Smulders. “It’s up to the audience to make their assumptions and judgments.”

“Another of the show’s themes,” Key says, “is how foggy the lens of nostalgia can be. All the characters are thinking, ‘Being back together SHOULD be the way it was.’ But it CAN’T be that way anymore.”

And it may not ACTUALLY have been that way in the first place. Sam’s husband, played by Greg Germann, grumbles about how she and her college friends try to live in their shared past: “You should let the past just go,” he tells her. “The present is a pretty cool place to be.”

In any case, the present is a cool place for Key. After five seasons creating dozens of characters on “Key & Peele,” along with writing and producing that brilliant Comedy Central series with his co-star Jordan Peele, Key says he’s grateful for the change that “Friends From College” represents: “Not having to be in charge: I can’t tell you how much I relish being an interpretive artist, and not being asked to be a wholly generative artist!”

Smulders calls “How I Met Your Mother” (her hit CBS sitcom that ended a nine-season run in 2014) “such a beautiful thing it’s hard to compare it to anything else. But, truly, ‘Friends from College’ has been a version of that. I love working in an ensemble and playing in group scenes.”

With “Friends From College” wrapped, Smulders and Key are busy these days with impressive theater projects. She is starring on Broadway alongside Kevin Kline and Kate Burton in a revival of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter.” He is portraying Horatio in the Public Theater’s production of “Hamlet.”

Thus do Key and Smulders pronounce themselves “THEE-uh-tuh” actors in a puffed-up way. But their joking leads into tributes to each other as “Friends From College” scene partners.

“Keegan is so funny, and so smart and quick!” Smulders says. “But he was asked to play some really emotionally grounded scenes as well. He’s inspiring to work with, because then you REALLY see how good he is.”

“For me,” Key begins, “the best way to be a good scene partner is to NOT be a good scene partner.”

He explains: If his character is making for the door, Key won’t anticipate the moment when his fellow actor takes the cue to keep him in the room. “If you don’t stop me,” says Key, “I’m walking out that door. I will ruin the shot. Because it has to be real. And I know Cobie will stop me, do whatever it takes. I know she understands that if I’m not a good scene partner, I’m being the BEST scene partner. Because my CHARACTER isn’t a scene partner - he’s just living his life. Performing him any other way smacks of artifice.

“You’re giving me everything as an actor by not giving me ANYthing as a character,” he tells Smulders. “That’s my definition of the trust in this partnership.”

No cheating here.

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org.

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Online: https://www.netflix.com

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