Happy Endings debuts tonight on ABC at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. A second episode will air immediately after, and the show’s regular timeslot will be 10 p.m. Eastern, starting next week.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
There are all of these young people—late 20s, early 30s—living in the big city—Chicago, in this case. Some of them are related to each other. They’re all at different stages of life. Some of them are married. Some of them have just recently gotten out of long-term relationships. Some of them are single. They’re all trying to figure out what they want out of life, and they all spend every possible moment they have hanging out together, as though they were horrifically co-dependent. Every week, they all have wacky adventures, usually revolving around one of the single characters, who has a weird date or something. Even though the two people who’ve broken up swear they hate each other now, it’s obvious they’ll be back together before the series wraps up.
Obviously, that basic setup is derivative of a great many sitcoms. It sounds like some of the later seasons of Friends, for one, and you could wrap in any number of “life in the big city sure is wacky!” shows spit out by the networks post-Seinfeld or Friends. But in particular, it sounds a lot like FIVE OTHER SITCOMS that are either currently airing or have recently left the airwaves. ABC has Better With You. CBS has Rules Of Engagement and Mad Love. Fox has Traffic Light. NBC has the probably canceled Perfect Couples. These shows aren’t all exactly alike, and some of them are fairly enjoyable (like Traffic Light). But there’s a huge glut of vaguely romantic comedies about people at different stages of their love lives this season, as though the networks looked at the huge success of Modern Family and Glee and decided that what people wanted were a bunch of pseudo-sequels to Friends.
The thing is that Happy Endings (the show described in paragraph one) isn’t BAD. It’s not really good either, but it’s better than every one of those shows listed above that’s not Traffic Light. Outside of tonight’s atrocious pilot, which is terrifyingly laugh-free, there are good jokes in every single episode. It’s not packed wall to wall with them, but there’s a strong sense that creator David Caspe and his writers are working their way toward a comedic point-of-view. Given a full season (or two) to figure this out, Caspe and his crew might find something worth watching in all of this. But in a season that’s seen the audience soundly reject every single comedy like this, there’s a glut of this kind of storyline. (Pity NBC’s Friends With Benefits, which is sitting on the shelf and may debut this summer, though I wouldn’t hold my breath.) And that means Happy Endings feels a little old hat, even when it’s being appealing.
At the center of this story are Dave (Zachary Knighton, continuing the weird trend of FlashForward alumni turning up in shows about couples at different stages of their relationships) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert). As the pilot begins, Dave and Alex are getting married, after a relationship that’s lasted many, many years. A man on roller blades breaks into the service to tell Alex that she doesn’t want this, that she’s tired of Dave and thinks the sex is awful. And she has to concur. She does think all of those things. So she runs off with roller blade man, and Dave slinks back to his apartment to weep quietly, sing along with the Indigo Girls, and slowly devour a life-sized chocolate bride, though he leaves her hand for holding.
In short, this is a premise pilot, a pilot that tells us how everything within the show’s world came to be. Premise pilots are all too often death for a comedy series because setting up a premise necessarily means there’s a lot of plot to burn through. Exposition rarely leaves time for jokes, and the first half of this pilot is not just laugh-free but kind of dull. Things get a little better as Alex returns (sans roller blade man, who was apparently a plot contrivance) and the two work through their emotions toward each other, but there’s still a weird sense that the show is trying to cover up some heavy emotions with chirpy jokes. There are some things that require something more than pop culture gags, and the dissolution of a long-lasting relationship—at the altar, no less—requires either stronger emotional material or a much darker tone comedically. Happy Endings is unwilling to go in either direction and instead just chooses to have the characters smile and talk about how much they hate each other.
To a degree, the material in Happy Endings would be better served by either a multi-camera, filmed before a live studio audience format or by the one-hour dramedy format. In the single-camera, half-hour format, it feels uncomfortably caught between the two. The actors are pitching their lines to an audience that doesn’t exist, and the emotional material needs more room to stretch its legs. What’s left feels a little uncomfortable, like someone sitting in a chair that’s way too small for them. There are moments, here and there, but the show essentially gives up trying to play any of this for emotional weight by episode two, simply because it doesn’t have the space to do something like that. Stretching to an hour might have made this a very good show. Putting it up in front of an audience might have made it a great one. (Live audience sitcoms often feel remarkably free to pursue very, very dark emotional material. Think of Taxi, Barney Miller, or All In The Family, for instance.)
But the later episodes, starting with tonight's second episode, are better because the show strains less to set up its premise (and, indeed, mostly ignores it; there’s a sense Dave and Alex are getting out of relationships, but there’s less sense they were in a relationship with each other) and focuses more on the jokes and wacky character beats. There are no jokes here you’ve never heard before, and the characters are all pretty standard and stock. But the cast members have a nice energy with each other—even propping up Cuthbert, who can be a liability but is winning here—and there’s something to be said for a show that will crack jokes about Alex getting caught in a bear trap and menaced by a cougar.
Plus, this is a cast full of solid comedic ringers, playing variations on archetypes you know and love. Eliza Coupe is Alex’s sister, Jane, an uptight married woman who likes to have a place for everything and everything in its place. Coupe, who’s often very funny as someone weird and abrasive, nicely modulates herself here to fit in with the series’ more muted tone. Adam Pally is also very good as Max, the least stereotypical gay man in the history of the world. (The April 27 episode, where he struggles to come out to his parents, is the strongest of the four I’ve seen, largely because he’s at its center.) He reads, in some ways, like what Modern Family was trying to do with Cameron before they simply took a hard left turn into over-the-top stereotype. Damon Wayans, Jr., is Jane’s husband, Brad, and while he doesn’t get a lot of laughs, he’s a solid physical comedian. And Saturday Night Live alum Casey Wilson is very strong as Penny, the usual perpetually single girl you always need in this kind of show. Wilson gets laughs from lines that probably aren’t meant as laugh lines, largely thanks to her idiosyncratic delivery.
It’s hard to say that you should absolutely check out Happy Endings, but it’s also hard to say you should avoid it like the plague. Nothing here is original, and there’s little indication that Caspe and his writers even WANT to do anything that tries to be original. But there’s something entertaining about Happy Endings nonetheless, something that gradually sinks in over time. After one episode of Happy Endings, I never wanted to see the show again. After four, I probably wouldn’t turn it off if I happened across it some night. That’s not exactly high praise, but it’s more than I can say for Perfect Couples.