Three episodes were provided for reviewing purposes prior to broadcast.
Showtime’s new half-hour dramedy Happyish is a bit off-brand for the network, which usually slots the hero-with-a-dark-secret into a thirty-minute show blueprint. The new show is less Weeds, Nurse Jackie or The Big C and more Californication: a loose character study about a middle-aged guy trying to desperately fight to establish his own existence and find a reason for it. Steve Coogan’s Thom Payne has no grand, mysterious backstory or any blatant reason to tip-toe carefully around revealing a second life to his friends and family. He just goes to work, loves his family and occasionally imagines advertising characters talking to him.
Ah, there’s the quirky hook you were waiting for. See, Thom is an advertising exec for a company with accounts like Coca-Cola and Geico. The pilot presents a guy with an average life – wife, son, job – but who for some reason can’t muster the ability to admit to his own happiness. It’s a lot to delve into, especially for a half-hour series, and the pilot left an admittedly nasty taste in my mouth, but even just three episodes in, the characters begin popping, the comedy becomes less abrasive, and the oddness of the dream sequences becomes easier to digest.
But it’s still not for everyone. Case in point: its brazenly obvious opening scene for each episode, which see a character narrating some rant against a historical or fictional figure, listing byzantine reasons why they suck and ending with the character, against a black backdrop, flipping off the camera. “Fuck you, Thomas Jefferson, Carol Brady, God, etc.” ends the rant along with the show’s title card. It’s an angry little device that would work, but I don’t think it completely sells the show it precedes.
Because, you see, Happyish, for all its millennial-level narcissism and minutes-long tirades on why Pepto Bismol doesn’t need a Twitter account (admittedly sharp), it’s not a completely negative show in of itself. It tries a bit too hard in the beginning to be “adult” with an overuse of curse words and taboo subjects like vaginal rejuvenation, but it’s got a kernel of sweetness to it as well, which is seen mainly in Coogan’s relationship with his son Julius (Sawyer Shipman) and wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn). The inner-family chemistry is off-the-charts, and their feral protection over their own little “bubble” – even when it delves into unrealistic sitcominess – is endearing.
The show’s hook, if you want to call it that, is seen in oddball daydream sequences where characters (in the first three episodes, only Thom and Lee) talk and interact with various real-life brands in their head. So, for example, Thom confronts a suicidal Keebler elf and dry-humps another in the pilot, and Lee has a confrontation with an Amazon delivery box with the voice of her mother in episode two. While initially grating (particularly a Dora the Explorer reference early on), the sequences begin feeling more necessary than superfluous in the show’s world, highlighting character quirks and backstories.