In some ways, what Happy Endings sets out to do is harder than just about any other comedy out there right now. The primary thing this show wants to do is make you laugh non-stop, from beginning of episode to end, but it doesn’t have the sorts of devices that other single-camera comedies can lean on for laughs. It doesn’t have talking heads or cutaway gags or genre parodies. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be done on a traditional, multi-camera sitcom from the ‘90s (which may explain all of the Friends comparisons). But to make the best advantage of its format, Happy Endings has had to speed everything way the hell up. When this show works, it’s a non-stop barrage of jokes, and you’re laughing at just about everything that happens. But when it doesn’t work, it can feel a little cloying.
Fortunately, the show’s worked far more than it hasn’t this season. It’s gone from a show I wasn’t sure about when I watched the pilot to what’s probably my favorite show to just sit down and watch on the air right now. There are shows that are better. There are shows that are more ambitious and try more interesting things. In the end, I probably appreciate those shows more. But when I have a new episode of Happy Endings on the DVR, I pretty much always watch it right away. To me, this show’s been on one hell of a roll here in its second season, and I’m impressed by how the show’s writers have made me care about the characters in the midst of all of the jokes. It’s nice to watch a show that takes aim at providing pure entertainment and hits that mark more often than not, and even the bum episodes have more than their fair share of hilarious moments.
That said, tonight’s episode hit a little too close to those cloying episodes to wholly work. There were some good things in it—particularly from the fantastic Casey Wilson, who’s one of the most underrated comedic performers on TV—but the vast majority of it felt kind of blah. Happy Endings needs to rely so heavily on jokes because the storytelling isn’t wildly original. If a Community or a Parks & Recreation can get by with some dud gags because the characters are so well-developed and the storytelling is so inspired, Happy Endings hasn’t quite gotten to that point. Max and Penny are well-developed characters, and Brad and Jane are a fairly stereotypical couple played by two actors who make them feel more original than they might in other hands. The show’s dedication this season to building Dave and Alex—played by Elisha Cuthbert, who’s been far funnier this season than I ever would have imagined her being—into characters in their own right shows just how well-oiled the machine running this series is now, but it’s not like any of these people break wildly with the sitcom form.
The same goes for the stories, which have a tendency to fall into stupid sitcom traps. Instead of looking for another, more original way out of those traps, however, Happy Endings just puts its head down and barrels on through, telling these stock sitcom plots in as straightforward a fashion as possible but leaving plenty of room for great jokes. Had every gag in the Alex and Jane storyline hit the same level as the initial discussion of Alex’s class—it’s a fashion design class run by a distant relative of Tim Gunn called “Situation Walkspace” and run on the catchphrase “Figure it out!”—then it wouldn’t have been as obvious that this was yet another sitcom story where one character lies to another one and hopes they don’t get busted, only to immediately get busted in the most humiliating way possible. (In this case, the charity dinner Jane was in charge of was attended by many other women in the same dress.)
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. Knowing where the story’s going from the first can leave the writers more room to come up with goofy gags or nice character moments. (This is particularly helpful on a show that tries to tell three stories in 20 minutes and change, as Happy Endings does.) But toward the end of this story, I was mostly just marking off the expected story beats and nodding, not really laughing. Alex’s dress wasn’t enough of a disaster to serve as the big punchline of the episode (though I liked Alex trying to reattach the hair that had fallen off), and the whole thing ended with one of those, “Oh, hey, we’ll always be together, isn’t that nice?” endings that the show still hasn’t quite figured out how to do consistently.
The Dave and Brad storyline was also kind of a mess. Happy Endings is already a fairly keyed-up and energetic show (it’s part of its charm), so introducing someone as over-the-top and excitable as Rob Riggle was always going to be a potential issue. While I liked Drew the mailman in some ways—his intimate knowledge of both Brad and Dave based on their mail was awesome—the way that he was essentially just Rob Riggle running around in the middle of a perfectly fine Happy Endings pushed everything a little too far toward manic. The basketball scene, in particular, was just trying too hard, and the episode’s solution to all of this—kill off Drew!—was a dark gag that was never dark enough because no one in the audience was likely too sad to see Drew go, even on the level of “guy you love to hate.”
Fortunately, it’s hard for this show to ever go too wrong because it’s got Wilson and Adam Pally as Penny and Max, tonight tossed together into a story where they both tried to figure out what to do with Max’s niece and nephew after Max’s brother dropped the kids off while he and his wife went off to try to rekindle their marriage and, thus, save it. (They would have known it was doomed if they’d just listened to Max’s best man toast.) This was another example of the show doing something it’s done a bunch of other times—Max doesn’t want to do something, but Penny throws herself into it whole hog, and it’s pretty terrifying—but the actors had a lot of fun with the kids, and I liked the way the story progressed with Max never really getting close to the kids but realizing that he could treat them like adults and, subsequently, get them to make him sandwiches. Also great? Penny attempting to win the kids’ love by wearing full princess regalia.
In the end, though, I just don’t know. I still laughed quite a bit but mostly in the first half of the episode. The second half got bogged down in the Drew stuff too much, and the sentimental endings never really felt all that earned. This is really too bad, because when David said he wouldn’t be around tonight and needed someone to fill in, I was really hoping that I would get an episode that would let me show just how much I love the shit out of this show this year. Instead, we got an okay episode that did some things well but also flailed around a lot. I was hoping for sharp, witty banter, and I got Rob Riggle elbowing guys in the face on a basketball court. I’m not saying that doesn’t have its place, but it’s not exactly what I tune in to Happy Endings to see.