Even though Keegan-Michael Key's Ethan and Annie Parisse's Sam have been hiding their affair for 20 years by the time the series starts, Friends From College doesn't keep it a secret for long. The Netflix series kicks off with one of their trysts away from their spouses. Cobie Smulders plays Lisa in Friends From College, Ethan's wife and Sam's friend. But when Bustle interviews her at the show's New York City premiere, Smulders herself is fairly understanding when it comes to her fictional husband and friend betraying Lisa.
"I mean, there's the word 'affair' — and it is an affair, technically, if you break it down — but having sex with each other once a year, once every two years, doesn't seem like a lot in the big picture, right? Or even in the moment," she says. Viewers probably won't be as sympathetic upon viewing Ethan's transgressions — especially when the pair consider starting a family.
Lisa is ignorant of her husband's years of infidelity, and you might wonder how Lisa doesn't suspect such a long-standing affair. Smulders says that the friend group's history is what keeps Lisa from being a one-dimensional, naive wife.
"Lisa is a lawyer, so you would think that this is a woman who should be suspicious, or at least suspect something that's been going on, especially cause it's been going on for 20 years," Smulders says. "But she's also a part of this group of friends that have been friends for so long."
The dysfunctional group of friends is made up of Ethan, Lisa, Sam, Fred Savage's Max, Nat Faxon's Nick, and Jae Suh Park's Marianne. All six friends attended Harvard, but Lisa is younger than the rest of them — Sam still calls her "froshie" 20 years later, much to Lisa's chagrin. As Lisa says in the first episode, it makes her feel inferior, like Sam is "always a senior and [she's] a permanent freshman." On top of that, Sam and Ethan started hooking up before Lisa even came on the scene. Knowing this backstory not only helps explain Lisa's conflicted feelings toward her friend, but also how she could shield herself from the suspicion that Sam and Ethan are still sleeping together.
"She's walking into a relationship, or a friend group dynamic, where Sam and Ethan were dating before she even came along," Smulders says about her character's time at Harvard. "So I think it's a combination of there's a history there anyway between Sam and Ethan and also they've just hidden it really well."
Lisa and Ethan are living in Chicago when Friends From College starts, so Ethan's affair with Sam is not just long-running — it has been long-distance and sporadic. But all that changes when the married couple moves to Sam's domain of New York City within the first episode. That's when the cracks start to show. "It's only until all these people are finally living in the same place together where they see each other on a day-to-day basis where she's really picking up on a lot of stuff and seeing them interact with each other in a way that's odd and bizarre," Smulders says.
Yet, Key isn't too hard on his character, either. "Laurence Olivier said you must love your character. You can never think of your character as a bad person," Key tells Bustle. "The most fun is being able to manufacture all of the justifications the character makes for making their decisions ... and figure out what does he know in his mind, what is he going to say out of his mouth, and what does he believe that he says out of his mouth?"
Parisse, whose character is also cheating on her husband due to the affair, credits Friends From College's married creators Nicholas Stoller and Francesca Delbanco for helping to make Sam and Ethan not just villains.
"It's one of the great things about how Nick and Francesca wrote it because I feel like they really explored all the characters — it was truly an ensemble show — and they really explored where every character is coming from," Parisse says. "So in the case of Sam and Ethan, you really get a point of view on both of them and what brought them to this 20-year affair."
It all goes back to what Smulders says about the characters' histories helping explain their actions. For Lisa, when it comes to Sam and Ethan, "There's a preexisting relationship that she's already sort of feeling bad about or it just kind of irks her," Smulders says. This combination of vulnerability and resentment builds up in Lisa during the first season of Friends From College, and while there is more to the series than this love triangle, it does threaten to take down everything in its path.
Sam and Ethan's affair may enrage you, but you just might get where they are coming from like Smulders can. Because though it's easy to guess what you would do in this situation, the reality could be much more complicated.