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Showtime’s new comedy series Happyish is in the unique situation of having experienced, in the immortal words of then-SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann, “premature jocularity.”
That’s because more than a year before it appeared in its current form, Showtime executives showed a clip of the future series at the Television Critics Association press tour and the brief, searingly funny snippet starring then-lead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was a huge hit.
But Hoffman tragically died not long after that, and Showtime had to figure out what to do with the series — created by author, essayist and This American Life contributor Shalom Auslander — about a jaded advertising executive in his 40s who is disillusioned with not only the new youth-obsessed direction of the firm he works at, but also with most annoying things in life.
The relatively short clip with Hoffman gave Happyish a certain buzz, well in advance of when it was due to come out. His death pushed that moment even further into the future. But now that the revamped version is about to premiere on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. (and the pilot was put online for free by Showtime), there’s a disappointed air of what-if about it. And that might not be fair. Because what troubles Happyish is something that even Hoffman probably couldn’t have saved. In fact, the role itself is not the issue, since the wonderfully talented British comic actor Steve Coogan is probably the best thing about the show.
No, Happyish is one of those series that suffers from having lots of potential in certain parts and needing an editor or a “no” person to veto the parts that so clearly are not working.
Television is a writer’s medium. Always will be. But Happyish might be the rare series where the network is too enamored with its creator that it didn’t reign him in. It’s like a quarterback on a great football team trying to do it all — there’s such a great cast on Happyish that if the writing gave them a little less so that they could do a little more, things might have worked out much better.
Coogan stars as Thom Payne, a 44-year-old cynic who worries about pretty much everything — like how his happy pills are messing up his penis pills — but especially the news bestowed by friend and agency boss Jonathan (Bradley Whitford) that the company has hired “the Swedes,” two 25-year-old gurus who bring their social media and youth-influenced views into the fold and grate on Thom immediately. The voice of the duo is Gottfrid (Nils Lawton), and the mostly silent one who whispers in his ear is Gustaf (Tobias Segal) — a hipster version of Penn & Teller sans the magic, but with all the annoying bits.
They immediately don’t like Thom.
Thom complains (about everything, really) to his wife, Lee (the superb Kathryn Hahn), and she calms him a bit while going on her own kind of bitter rants. There are a lot of rants in Happyish, and that’s quite a bit of the problem.
But for starters, the pilot is more annoying than funny. The series gets better in the second episode. And in the third — which is all Showtime sent — both the potential and the problems of the show are crystallized.
Whether or not it’s intentional, Happyish comes off like it really believes it’s badass television. Like it rolled onto the scene to show TV a thing or two. That’s off-putting, not only because Happyish isn’t really badass at all — despite its constant and mostly childish swearing — but also because the best aspects of this show are the least aggro and in-your-face. Happyish likes to start off each episode by making a point about something or someone, like God, and then saying, literally, “F— you, God,” with a picture of someone in the cast (like Thom or Lee) flipping off the camera.
Is there anything more childish and weakly ineffective than a flipped middle finger?
It’s like Happyish is really happy to be on cable where it can do what it wants, but it’s also clueless that so many other shows have already done that (and done it better, unfortunately). How no one at Showtime flagged this at the start of each episode is astonishing. It sets the wrong tone (yes, you can swear all you want on premium cable — how very 1999 of you) and, again, it’s the least successful part of this show.
Where Happyish works best is when Auslander’s writing is the least showy — when he writes banter between Thom and Lee or Thom and Jonathan that sounds like two smart adults talking, not a guy at a keyboard writing an essay with clever right angles. Coogan is malleable enough to do just about anything, and if you’re lucky enough to have Hahn and Whitford there for some intelligent sparring, you should use them more effectively. It could be that Happyish doesn’t want anything to do with the smart and warmly understanding parts it does so well. It wants to be — and yes, this is the perfectly terrible word for it — edgy.
You can sense that in how the show uses animation (so far in the form of mostly branded characters like the Keebler elves or the Geico’s gecko) and rejoices in playing Who Framed Roger Rabbit with them, only with tons more F-bombs. Admittedly, in the initial clip critics saw with Hoffman, the appearance of foul-mouthed Keebler elves was pretty damned funny (and David Nevins, the head of Showtime, said then that the channel would not be playing along or playing nice with advertisers, since it doesn’t use them, so spoofing them would be part of the deal).
However, when the Keebler elves are used in the new version, the joke is just so excessive that the whole thing implodes. It goes on too long, it becomes crass in a way that Family Guy probably would roll its eyes at and then keeps hitting the same note.
Again, Hoffman in all his genius might not have been able to save Happyish from its worst tendencies.
The same overkill quality is true of the use of animation in the third episode, when Thom has a run-in with the Geico gecko. While the gecko likes to go on soapboxing rants — one of the aforementioned faults of Happyish — Auslander also likes to reduce him to trading swear words with Thom, who does his best to kick, flick and smash the gecko to what someone thought would be comic effect. But the bit falls flat when the two just curse at each other, with no flair or creative twist. “If you make one stupid gecko joke, I swear, I will kick your f—ing teeth in,” says Thom, in a way that will prove monumentally ironic as the episode goes on. If that kind of rage was used sparingly, it might be funny. But it’s used all the time. “You’re a f—ing asshole,” Thom yells at the gecko in another scene. “F— you, Thom,” says the gecko. At the end of that third episode, when the gecko is attempting to wrap up and make a point about all the absurdities that Thom has just been through in the last half-hour, Thom runs him over in the parking lot. “Asshole,” says Thom, looking in the rearview mirror. “F— you, Thom. F— you,” says the gecko, flipping him off.
(If you’re given the green light to swear all you want, be a little more creative. Or realize it’s a crutch you don’t need.)
The most frustrating part about Happyish is that there’s a good show in there somewhere. An advertising agency provides loads of opportunity for both commentary and target riffing. And Coogan is at his best when he’s a father, husband and employee worrying about how growing old is changing all those roles for him. Aging, its fears and indecencies and ego-slicing, are themes ripe for exploration, but having Thom go up against the cardboard cutout tech-talk of “the Swedes” is the easiest “you’re out of touch or obsolete” trope out there.
When the series uses Thom’s relationships with surrounding employees it really has something. Maya (Reshma Shetty) can work up the most cynical and are-you-kidding pitch out there, with an emphasis on youth power. David (Kevin Kilner) is the perfect foil for Thom, working in a separate department, protecting his turf. Carrie Preston is excellent as a slightly older female creative exec who fears “the Swedes” will get rid of her. The show also is working in Ellen Barkin as a headhunter and, while still loosely defined, she has her moments. All of that works. Trying to be a badass with the boring swearing and flipping off the camera doesn’t.
But it could be that Showtime doesn’t want to edit Auslander. The evidence of three episodes suggests it will let him smugly riff on things when maybe half of the rant would have been enough. As a particularly painful example, there’s a scene in the third episode that needs a hatchet taken to it. Lee is at the doctor’s office because her son has a fever (it’s the backstory of the entire episode). Even Hahn can’t pull off the stagy essay-ness of it: “I’m not one of those mothers who has to bring her kid to the doctor’s for every little thing,” Lee says as the doctor checks her son. “You ask me, and I think science is the West’s new religion — and I wasn’t that crazy about the old one.” (You’d think she’d stop there, but she doesn’t. The doctor hasn’t even acknowledged her.) “Scientists have become our popes, rabbis, imams — question it, you’re a fool; without it, you’re a sinner. It’s the way all religion works, right? Absolute belief. It’s not a placebo, it’s not a sugar pill, it’s not just letting the body do what nature taught it to do.” (The doctor is still examining the kid, still not saying a word.) “Behold, it’s a miracle from the new God — science! For you have found favor in his eyes. It’s going to be 23 bucks a pill!”
It’s painful both to watch and listen to that — because there’s not a fragment of it that works. That scene is basically Auslander at a book reading, reciting one of his essays.
The cast is phenomenal, Auslander clearly can write, and the best parts of Happyish are right there to be seen — just under all the monologue-mugging and stupid middle-finger posturing and f—-yous. But people can’t be expected to wait forever. There are too many other, better options. Happyish needs an editor — and fast.
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