In praise of one of the most ah-mah-zing and suh-cy-ute sitcoms to ever air.
Note: this article originally appeared on Set the Tape (link).
So, as previously established, lockdown entertainment consumption for yours truly hasn’t been going so great. Even though many other folks are able to crawl back into comfort television or finally get started on that big important prestige drama everybody always goes on about being great but maybe 10% of the folks actually venerating its greatness have ever seen more than 20 minutes of, I’ve been unable to get my head straight and into a position where I can properly and enjoyably sink into a series that takes me away from this dispiritingly stupid apocalypse. The one major real exception to that rule, however, came at the very start of lockdown when I finally had the time and disposable income to import, on Blu-Ray, the complete series boxset of Happy Endings.
David Caspe’s Happy Endings has long been one of my favourite little televisual blips, originally airing for three seasons between 2011 and 2013 to a miniscule but devoted audience before being unceremoniously cancelled and, once its run finished in the UK, dropped entirely from E4 never to be seen again – not even in the re-run purgatory where their other sitcom acquisitions like How I Met Your Mother and The Goldbergs get to enjoy hefty afterlives. For years afterwards, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of its brief all-killer-no-filler run, several of its recurring bits lodged into my lexicon or memory. “Ah-mah-zing,” “suh-cy-ute,” “year of Penny” (and its later amendment “fiscal year of Penny, suck it taxpayers!”), the Car Czar (he knows what cars are), sad krumping, “The Jane,” Max’s winter hibernation, “Mary Tyler Moore Tyler Moore Moore Moore,” “mafia rules,” “Jane, you dumb lamppost!” the Kerkovich way, “gay-cist,” the Egg Begley Jr., “she got them THAAAAANGS!” Tyler the racist parrot…
I genuinely could go on and on, but an article can’t just be me listing a series of jokes and punchlines from a show I know most of you have never heard of outside of that one reaction gif. But that’s actually kind of the problem when it comes to selling Happy Endings to folks not already aware of it. Unlike similar acclaimed sitcoms airing at that time such as HIMYM or Community or Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings doesn’t really have a big eye-catching hook to it or majorly deep insights into the human condition. In fact, the more unique aspects of its premise – what happens to a group of semi-affluent mostly-white best friends living in the Big City (here Chicago) when one of them, Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), leaves another, Dave (Zachary Knighton) at the altar – are something of a straightjacket for the typically rocky first few Season 1 episodes; the series wisely ditching all that plot-work around about the seventh to just become a hangout sitcom.
Hangout sitcoms without an immediately obvious hook are murder to try and sell since, as Emily VanDerWerff explains in her piece on Friends’ 25th anniversary and its (misunderstood and ultimately poisonous) legacy, they are all about deflating conflict and providing simple comfort food where folks come back based solely on the strength of the jokes and central ensemble rather than any lasting overarching tension. It’s not the kind of thing you can really uniquely and properly sell in an ad campaign or to the uninitiated, no matter how great your show may be, even before taking into account the absolute glut of Friends knock-offs and wannabes which had flooded the airwaves by the time of Happy Endings’ debut in mid-season 2011. Then there’s also ABC airing the entire first season out of order, barely even trying to promote it, and continuously shunting it around the schedule (including the inexplicable decision in its third season to try running two episodes per week on different nights for a month); the customary screwing that gives short-lived cult shows their underdog backstories.
Make no mistake, the deck was stacked against Happy Endings and, even after watching the entire series again in just under a month, I still can’t explain any specifically unique ways in which the show stands out from the crowd. It was just, quite simply, the single funniest show on television for those two years and remains screamingly funny today.
OK, to try and be properly analytical since we can’t embed YouTube clips and compilations here, I find one of the better descriptors comes from Tanya Pai of Vox who labelled it as “a traditional sitcom hopped up on illegal Mexican cough syrup.” It has the speed, absurdist streak, and occasional meta-ness of something like Community but lacking the infrequent smugness that crops up in that other show – a feature of Dan Harmon works, not necessarily a complaint. The Russo Brothers were executive producers in the show’s early days and they applied that same fast-paced overlapping joke-a-rama editing style previously seen in Community and Arrested Development to a more traditional hangout sitcom that Happy Endings’ writers would proceed to take full advantage of once everyone settled into their groove. By the time of the show’s third season, they had this down to an absolute science where seemingly every other line manages to piggy back off the previous one and create a non-stop barrage of quips. And whilst the nuts and bolts of the plotting are often pretty standard sitcom stuff, the writers almost always manage to twist their execution in delightfully specific and hysterically unexpected ways.
To that end, although this isn’t a unique observation not least cos it gets brought up or referenced in the show itself, the main ensemble quickly reveal themselves to be ridiculous sociopathic weirdos that flip or smartly-exaggerate your usual hangout sitcom archetypes yet somehow keeps them on just the right side of likeable and entertaining. Penny (Casey Wilson) takes the hopeless romantic hot mess to such extremes that she’ll attempt to process a break-up by writing a full three-act musical casting herself as the Black Death coming to kill everything nice and good. Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.) and Jane (Eliza Coupe) are a hopelessly-devoted couple freely and happily inverting traditional gender roles – that’s not even counting Jane’s bisexuality which, shockingly for even the early 2010s, isn’t played as a ‘sexy phase’ or solely for cheap comic gags (in retrospect it feels like a forerunner to Eleanor Shellstrop’s similar treatment in The Good Place).
Speaking of delightfully progressive gay representation for early 2010s sitcom television, Max (Adam Pally) is gay and that fact is hardwired into his personality, but it’s not his sole personality trait and the show refuses to make a big deal out of any of his various relationships, hook-ups or on-screen kisses (unlike certain other faux-progressive sitcoms that were network mates with Happy Endings during its run). Hell, arguably just to prove a point, an early Season 1 episode gives Penny her dream stereotypical “Sex and the City” GBFF, demonstrates exactly how exhausting and offensive such a caricature would be to exist around for more than a few minutes, then turns him into a series-long recurring character with actual depth and specific quirks. Dave and Alex spend much of the first season as the somewhat straightforward rom-com leads, but by the second have managed to blossom into, respectively, a deeply insecure wannabe cool guy who pathologically cannot help but define himself by whatever new development passes him by that week (see especially the exact self-righteousness he adopts when he discovers his 1/16 Navajo ancestry) and an often-oblivious ditz with an appetite equal to the population of a small island nation.
They’re just extremely funny characters to hang out with, performed by one of those once-in-a-blue-moon cast ensembles that bottles lightning where everyone is equally brilliant and effortlessly sources electric undeniable chemistry. The specific kind of fun-toxic co-dependence dynamic that a lot of Friends wannabes desperately try to replicate – where it’s clear that these are all largely terrible self-centred people incapable of functioning outside of their specific circle, but everyone’s too entertaining to watch for it to curdle the mood – lives and dies on whether or not the cast is in sync with each other, whether they are believable best friends, and Happy Endings’ ensemble summons that up with winning abandon. It’s been seven years since the show went off the air, yet I still pop whenever I see Adam Pally in a thankless bit role in some garbage comedy or family abomination. Same with Eliza Coupe. Same with Damon Wayans, Jr. Elisha Cuthbert’s work on this show should completely negate stuff like Captivity or House of Wax; her comic instincts are shockingly fantastic.
Look, I recognise that the vast majority of my argument is just a flowery verbose way of saying “no, trust me, this show is hilarious, you should give it a try.” Cult TV doesn’t always have a big fancy hook, an iconic storyline or groundbreaking innovation that renders it a necessary part of television history, or a perpetually nerd-beloved creator or cast that can draw eyes to it. Sometimes, it’s just a really fantastic show that didn’t get the credit or run it truly deserved when on the air. That’s Happy Endings to a tee, as evidenced by the fact that those who did fall under its sway are still yelling about it close to a decade on from its debut and that revival rumours crop up roughly once a year to fans’ inevitable disappointment when they fall through. It’s even become the latest early 2010s sitcom to do a charity Zoom reunion special, putting it on the same level as Community, Parks and Rec and (sorta) 30 Rock!
It may inexplicably be unavailable to freely stream in the UK, but you should definitely seek it out instead of re-running Friends for the billionth time. Yeah, Friends was good, but did it ever produce “Boyz II Menorah?” (unrelated to the shit one James Corden did). Prosecution rests.