'Happy!': TV Review
Christopher Meloni gives a zany, animated performance opposite Patton Oswalt's literally animated imaginary friend in Syfy's outlandish new comic adaptation.
Remember Imaginary Mary?
Talking blob of hairy tofu on Prozac offers personal and professional advice to Jenna Elfman? Aired on ABC for nine episodes this spring and then disappeared without anywhere near the save-our-show campaign that supported the network's departed talking dog sitcom?
Think of the new Syfy dramedy Happy! as Imaginary Mary on PCP. Of course, Imaginary Mary was pretty bad, and it's hard to think of situations in which PCP makes things better, but Happy! is driven by a gonzo performance from Christopher Meloni. And unlike PCP, gonzo Chris Meloni always makes things better.
Based on the comic series by writer Grant Morrison and artist Darick Robertson, Happy! stars Meloni as Nick Sax, formerly a hero cop, now a drug-and-booze-addled hitman whose latest job leaves him on the brink of death, but also in the middle of a Christmas season gang war between rival crime factions. As if that's not enough, Nick finds himself visited by Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), imaginary friend to Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo), a young girl who has been abducted by a malevolent Santa Claus. Happy, a buck-toothed blue unicorn-donkey with feathers, just wants Nick to save Hailey. Nick, however, mostly wants to get away from scary threats like a superficially genteel mobster named Blue (Ritchie Coster), Blue's smiling torture expert Smoothie (Patrick Fischler) and a detective, Meredith McCarthy (Lili Mirojnick), who may have played a part in destroying Nick's old life.
Morrison adapted Happy! for the small screen with Brian Taylor, half of the Neveldine/Taylor duo behind the Crank films, and Taylor directed the pilot. For better or for worse, you'll find yourself thinking of Crank frequently during that opening episode, one of two sent to critics, especially during the kinetic POV shots — Happy zipping around New York City with unfettered abandon, contrasted with the variably altered Nick stumbling and sprinting around in a shambolic haze — and in violence that leaves "operatic" behind in favor of something even more heightened and blood-spattered. Taylor's style is one of aesthetic urgency that covers for the questionable urgency of the narrative, which is a familiar mixture of hitman tropes mixed with gangster torture tropes mixed with child endangerment tropes, all run through a holiday season blender that saturates everything in green and red flashing lights and buries the sounds of gunshots, bludgeonings and screams of pain in a medley of Christmas carols. Because Happy! is on basic cable, everything is just a little bit less committed than the sheer delirium of an R-rated movie, but also impressively committed for Syfy. Happy! would have made a good match with Blood Drive, if Syfy hadn't canceled the latter after a single bonkers season.
It's a lot to take in an hourlong show.
Actually, I take back my "Imaginary Mary on PCP" comparison. Nobody knows what Imaginary Mary is.
Happy! is actually much more like a long-in-the-future Home Alone sequel in which Kevin McCallister became a cop, had his life fall apart and became a suicidal wreck, but still made time every Christmas to orchestrate elaborate and complicated ways to torture anybody with the temerity to mess with his personal space.
This show would be violent style-over-substance to a needless degree were it not for the endless pleasure of watching Meloni turn himself into a cartoon character. The eponymous imaginary friend is the actual animated figure in Happy!, and he interacts decently with the live-action environments and is given vivid life thanks to Oswalt's childlike enthusiasm, but Happy feels positively grounded compared to Nick. Getting beaten, shot, thrown from cars and otherwise abused in manners that would leave a normal human permanently hospitalized, Nick feels like Meloni is channeling Wile E. Coyote, assessing the pain from each incident and pushing forward, impervious to pain and probably brain damage. His gruff voice and line readings are so immediately distinctive that Happy can do an instantly recognizable Nick impression by the second episode, and his all-in physicality calls to mind Meloni's tremendous turn in Wet Hot American Summer. The show works, to the degree that it works, because of the Kevin McCallister-esque relative innocence that Meloni brings to the role, such that he can contemplate blowing his brains out, kill and maim a dozen thugs and mistreat a flying blue spawn of a narwhale and Donkey from Shrek, but none of it feels malicious, or at least not evil. It's still hard to imagine how the performance sustains over a full season, much less multiple seasons.
Of the supporting players, Coster and Fischler offer spirited takes on familiar archetypes. It's telling that the female roles, including Detective McCarthy, Hailey and Medina Senghore as Hailey's mom, are both the most "normal" parts on the show and also characters so underwritten that they get lost entirely in the early going.
With the aforementioned Blood Drive, but also shows like Preacher and American Gods and Evil Dead in the half-hour format, outsized craziness has become a viable way for dramas to stand out in a cluttered field. The level of crazy in Happy! isn't inspired enough, nor is its story interesting enough to measure up to the genre's best, but in Meloni, it has a star capable of measuring up to any outlandish competition.
Cast: Christopher Meloni, Ritchie Coster, Patrick Fischler, Lili Mirojnick, Medina Senghore, Bryce Lorenzo and the voice of Patton Oswalt
Adapted by: Grant Morrison and Brian Taylor
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Syfy)