Really, it’s a miracle that I’m here reviewing Happy Endings for you on its second-season première. Here’s a show that debuted around the same time as NBC’s Perfect Couples and FOX’s Traffic Light last year, prompting eye-rolls from critics bored of “Hey, it’s a bunch of people in various stages of couplehood!” shows. But the show grew a cult following from its UCB-heavy cast and its madcap energy, quickly found its feet and has been rewarded with a full year on ABC for our viewing pleasure. I myself only caught up over the summer just out of lazy interest. Quickly, Happy Endings became a favorite of mine, with its 20something ensemble and zippy style reminding me of How I Met Your Mother in its best years.
The show still has some flaws to overcome, but it was well on the way by the time it wrapped up season one. Its ostensible leads—Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), whose wedding-day breakup is the focus of a lot of early episodes—are the least interesting characters on the show. That’s not that surprising, given that the four other actors come from a funny-person background (Adam Pally and Casey Wilson are UCB vets; Eliza Coupe is formerly of Scrubs, and Damon Wayans Jr. is even funnier than his comic pedigree suggests). But even though Cuthbert and Knighton will probably never have the timing of their cohorts, the show has learned how to have more fun with them, mostly at their characters’ expense, and now it feels more like a real ensemble.
Season opener “Blax, Snake, Home” basically sticks to the formula the show had humming by the end of last year. It’s pretty simple: If you pair off any character with any other character, it’ll probably be funny. But the show is also reintroducing every character a little for new viewers. Penny (Wilson) defiantly buys an apartment without being in a committed relationship, but it backfires, getting colonized by cats and scaring off suitors who are less prepared for life. Brad (Wayans) fights with buddy Max (Pally) because he’s taken to hanging out with a group of black guys. And Jane (Coupe) tries to exert control over her un-coupled friends Dave and Alex by having them be honest about each other’s foibles, like her bad jambalaya and his bad singing (he recorded a song called “Love To The Power Of Love”).
It all basically clicks. Penny’s plots have a tough balance to strike, because if she was more comically needy and desperate, she could literally turn into Cathy or something. But she has just the right amount of optimism and self-possession that even a tired joke like “cats = spinsterhood” works. It doesn’t hurt that some of her lines are nicely on-the-nose. “Is it cold in here? I need a housecoat and a hot tea with lemon! Should I get an AOL address?” Her eventual breakdown during her Roaring 20s party is a great parody of the Penny-type, wandering around in sweatpants and picking up pints of ice cream from random, hidden locations around her house.
By the end of the episode, we’ve had a Friends-esque reconfiguration (remember when they would just shuffle the characters around the various apartments every so often?) where Alex will move in with Penny, ostensibly because she burnt her place down, but more likely because roommate drama is an excellent well for comedy. Also, it was getting weird seeing Alex in that gigantic fancy apartment all by herself when she runs some weird clothing store that probably operates at a huge loss. I mean, everyone’s apartment in every show is fabulous (the 2 Broke Girls even have a fucking yard) but Alex’s was remarkably pristine.
Alex and Dave’s lame-off was a little more predictable, with the jokes about her shitty cooking and his lame music getting chuckles out of me but no more. There were some nicer, more specific douche-jabs (which is what I always like to see from this show), like those weird rubber foot-shaped running socks, or Alex’s habit of feeding her new pet snake Peeps (“He loves them,” she insists). But those plots would really work better if they had major chemistry, which has never been the case. I don’t know if Happy Endings has any plan to get these two back together (there have been some mild hints, especially in last season’s finale), but I hope they don’t, because these two are no Ross and Rachel (and remember how annoying those two got).
Luckily, this is not a show where there can be a lot of partner-swapping. Brad and Jane are married, Max is gay, and the idea of Penny and Dave makes very little sense. That allows the show a nice cavalcade of guest stars to play weird suitors and friends, and although the only person I recognized here was Brandon Johnson (as “Blax”) I’m told we can look forward to the return of actors like Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, June Diane Raphael, Seth Morris, and Brett Gelman. Building up a reserve of fun recurring characters is exactly what this show should be doing.
Whether there’s any larger season-arc plans at work, time will tell—the show doesn’t have an obvious gimmick along the lines of How I Met Your Mother’s narrator, or a mockumentary style or anything like that. It’s a refreshingly simple show that only works because its actors have such good chemistry together. That’s why Happy Endings has survived where its relatives on other networks did not.
- The opening oyster-carnage scene was a lot of fun, but even better was Max’s “apology” for stabbing Brad with an oyster fork. “Comme ci, comme ça, that was pretty cool how it went in your leg, I thought there would be more blood.”
- Penny is told early on that she has ridden “ah-maaa-zing,” one of her catchphrases from season one, into the ground.
- Beverly Hills Cop is “black and white and black,” Brad says. Men In Black is “black and white in black.” Erin Brockovich is “just white as hell.” Royal Tenenbaums? “White white white white white white white white white… black, brown, then black!”
- “Richard Gere is not a Hurricane Katrina denier.”
- Penny’s light-assisted puns were great. “This afternoon has been illuminating!”
- “What a delicious fax machine!”
- “I am a mess! I will like friend your mom on Facebook and start showing up at events I am not invited to!”
- Alex gets Jane a pair of aqua-flage running socks.
- Max gives away the endings of Primal Fear and Unfaithful. “You’re killing me!” “Just like tumors killed Winona Ryder in Autumn In New York.”
- Max and Daryl have a lot in common. “If I gave you a partially used Borders gift card, do you think you could give me a lift to small claims court?” “Dammit, I am white Daryl!”
- Brad’s china-polishing servant joke about the 1920s was great. Jane’s quiet “You don’t polish china” putdown? Even better.
- “Frolf is not a sport!” “Hey, we have a newsletter!”