Critic's NotesTaking Another Look at ABC's 'Happy Endings'
By Maureen Ryan, AOLTV.com
We're in the dog days of summer -- the brief calm period before the fall frenzy begins -- so I thought I'd use this week to take another look at shows I won't be able to pay much attention to when new programs begin rolling out in a couple of weeks.
First up is ABC's 'Happy Endings,' an ensemble comedy that premiered in the spring and returns Sept. 28. You could almost say it's a summer show -- ABC, in its infinite wisdom, randomly aired a new episode Aug. 24, because that makes a ton of sense. Yeeesh. Thanks for the freebie, ABC, but I mainly used Hulu and iTunes to catch up on the show's first season in recent days.
The verdict? Late in its debut season, 'Happy Endings' was far less shrill and better calibrated than it was when it first premiered, and I could see why it got renewed.
Admittedly, I was heartily sick of the excessive number of love-and-relationship comedies that premiered last season and that might have colored my initially negative take on 'Happy Endings,' but the show itself needed some work. I'm happy to say that 'Endings' improved in a number of key ways, though it isn't nearly in the league of, say, 'Cougar Town' or '30 Rock,' two very different shows that the ABC comedy appears to be emulating.
The thing is, 'Happy Endings' can't ape both those comedies. It has to choose. It can be a comedy which is more or less grounded in reality and which feaures characters the audience cares about (a la 'Cougar Town'), or it can be a comedy in which the main goals are to have superficial, unchanging characters reel off funny lines and endure absurd moments (a la '30 Rock').
Once in a while, a comedy is able to pull off both those things ('Scrubs' in its heyday was a good example, and 'Parks and Recreation' is the rare show that unites all those elements and more flawlessly), but it's very, very hard to do and requires very clear ideas about who the characters are and what the show can get away with. 'Happy Endings' isn't in that zone yet, but it's become a pleasant enough way to spend a half an hour.
When 'Happy Endings' is at its least pleasant, it creates contrived situations in which the payoff isn't worth putting up with the contrivances. Take the episode in which Penny (Casey Wilson) could only speak Italian when she was drunk. It wasn't a believable story line, but it would have been more or less OK if it had led to big laughs. It didn't, and it left the actress stranded in an increasingly unfunny blind alley.
Actually, Casey Wilson is sort of symptomatic of what 'Endings' could be doing better -- the actress is winning and great at physical comedy (Penny's bar mitzvah dancing scene in the hipster parody 'Dave of the Dead' was terrific). But could we please have fewer story lines in which she's obsessing over whether she'll ever land a man? That sort of desperate-single-gal sitcom writing is about as stale and musty as the thrift-store threads of the hipsters the gang mocked.
Same goes for Eliza Coupe -- she simply needs better and more varied material. The final season of 'Scrubs' was a weird misfire, but her tightly wound character was one of the best things about it. 'Endings' rarely lets her character, Jane, do anything but demonstrate her control-freak tendencies. Sure, Coupe can do that in her sleep, but she's capable of more. The show should let us see the insecure person that hides behind Jane's Type A persona more often, just as it'd be good to occasionally see the sincere friend behind Max's (Adam Pally) disaffected facade and the goofy nerd that lurks underneath Brad's smooth-talking surface (Damon Wayans Jr.).
I think 'Happy Endings' gets all that, and episodes later in the season focused much more on giving the characters relatable human dimensions. I don't think anyone's ever going to say that Zachary Knighton and Elisha Cuthbert, who play the central ex-couple Dave and Alex, are comic geniuses, but at least their characters went from bland non-entities to reasonably watchable straight men for the rest of the cast over the course of the first season. And by showing us that Alex is still hung up on Dave -- whom she left at the altar in the pilot -- it gives the audience a small-scale but nicely constructed ongoing story to follow.
I don't think I'll ever understand the devotion that several critics I follow on Twitter have shown to 'Happy Endings' (at one point last spring, the TV-covering herd on Twitter apparently decided that 'Happy Endings' was worth watching and 'Breaking In' was not -- even though I still think 'Breaking In' has potential and I was actually glad Fox un-cancelled it, if only so I can see Michael Rosenbaum's hilariously douchey character again). All the 'Endings' cheerleaders out there may be glad to know that I certainly don't dislike the show any more, and the second half of the season had some solid episodes. It's a comedy to fold laundry to, but that's not a dis, just a statement.
Some of the best things about 'Happy Endings' have been its great guest stars -- Rob Huebel was hilarious as a douchey teacher, T.J. Miller gave great deadpan as the gang's college friend, Shershow, and Damon Wayans showed the kids how it's done as the father of Brad -- and I have to give props to several throwaway lines that stuck in my head for days (one character was accused of being so white that he was like "the ghost of Tilda Swinton"). If the show can continue to tone down the brittleness, keep the stories from straying into tired contrivances and dial up the camaraderie and the memorable dialogue, I'll continue to check it out when laundry duty calls.
Here's 'You've Got Male,' an enjoyable episode that features Huebel as Dave's high school teacher. [CLICK LINK BELOW]http://www.aoltv.com/2011/08/29/taki...happy-endings/