ABC’s decision to use “Save Happy Endings” as a marketing strategy frustrates me on two levels. First and foremost, it’s a shirking of responsibility, effectively saying that the show’s struggles aren’t the result of poor scheduling decisions or ineffective marketing techniques, but rather audiences not doing enough of ABC’s work for them. However, the decision also foregrounds the show’s uncertain future at a time when the show itself has been strong creatively. When we look back on these episodes, they will not bear the mark of looming cancellation like other shows that have been forced to make dramatic creative changes to stay on the air. Happy Endings knows what it is, and its audience knows why it enjoys it, and it’s the kind of hangout show where it’s best if you’re watching without thinking about the show’s prospects in the back of your mind (which is also why I plan to hunt and kill TVByTheNumbers’ Cancel Bear, but that’s a rant for another day).
The good news, I discovered, is that the show moves so quickly there’s no time to get caught up in ABC’s marketing strategy. Indeed, covering the show for the first time—David will be back next week—I was shocked at just how challenging it was to follow from a critical perspective. Both “In The Heat Of The Noche” and “The Straight Dope”—particularly the former—move too quickly to dwell on whether the show will be renewed or canceled, and at times move too quickly to possibly try to capture even every second joke for the sake of posterity. And yet at the same time the two episodes are actually simple as far as sitcom structures go, with each half-hour dividing cleanly into two mostly-self-contained storylines, to the point where even events that might normally involve other characters exclude them to maintain segregation (although I suppose the show implies that Brad tried to text Penny and Max about his plans for Chuckles & Huggs while they were indisposed).
“In The Heat Of The Noche” uses this segregation to focus on Brad, who is the character the show has really put into a period of transition this season. While the show will never evolve into a workplace comedy, Brad’s employment situation has highlighted the character’s place within the group nicely, although “In The Heat Of The Noche” puts a button on the arc with Brad accepting a more traditional job after turning around the struggling kids gym through his love of business (including both taking care of and minding his own, among numerous others). The episode uses Brad as a rallying point, bringing Jane, Alex, and Dave into the storyline less as central actors and more as comic fodder who can contribute to Brad’s self-fulfillment.
The storyline works nicely, even if I ended up finding it all a bit unsatisfying as far as character development goes. I realize that’s a weird thing to say of a joke-a-second hangout comedy, but I thought Brad’s scene with Jane in the ball pit before the show’s recent hiatus was a really poignant moment, and the idea of Brad making a choice that reflected something he loved was a nice inflection for the character. While “In The Heat Of The Noche” gets some good mileage out of guest star David Alan Grier (who gets a lot of those joke-a-second jokes, and whose character will surely make millions off snake insurance), it also feels a bit like a do-over: “Oh, did we say Brad didn’t like his old job and could find more pleasure in this job? Well, it turns out he really does love business, because we need to stabilize his place in the show.” The supporting comic runners—Jane’s struggle to relate to the kids, Dave’s one-hit-wonder about dooty, and Alex’s gradual devolution into child labor—were all enjoyable, making the most of the kids’ gym setting, but the resolution felt like a bit of a copout (albeit still within the tone of the show).
Brad’s story being so central meant that Max and Penny were left to fend for themselves, a comic pairing that is asked to carry a charmingly slight storyline. It really needs no explanation beyond its logline: “Max and Penny get addicted to a banned Mexican cold medicine.” It’s left to Adam Pally and Casey Wilson—who spoke with our own Erik Adams this week—to go a little nuts, something that director Josh Bycel works with nicely. At times the storyline feels unmoored from reality—the passage of time being so radically different from Brad’s storyline—but I appreciated how Pete’s arrival at the end grounds it. While the show isn’t exactly going to explore the consequences of their bender—it’s not like we pick up with Max’s texting pal Jason in the following episode—I think Pete represents a really useful tool for the writers, someone whose arrival can reveal and disperse the zaniness for a brief moment of clarity that serves as a logical end point.
It’s a reminder that the show doesn’t have a (comic) straight man, at least in the traditional sense. As Brad notes in “The Straight Dope” when trying to find a way to identify Max as gay, every character has enough quirks to sink a metaphorical ship that is oddly susceptible to the weight of quirks, which means that moments of clarity are tougher to come by. “The Straight Dope” goes in search of those moments, though, by pushing Max and Alex out of their comfort zones as they try to change themselves. Max does it to get great Bulls tickets from a hot woman—played by Abby Elliott, making the sitcom rounds until she gets her own—he inadvertently hits on at the bar, while Alex does it to prove to her friends that she’s really not as stupid as they think she is.
The former story largely goes as you expect it would, with Brad and Penny branching off to offer support in the form of actively attempting to undermine his plan to convince Katie he’s straight. After Brad gets taken in by the appearance of a third Bulls ticket, Penny’s plan moves to Max’s—logical—aversion to sex with women, which the episode gets some great comic mileage out of (see: forekissing). However, what I like about Max as a character—indeed, to Brad’s point, part of what makes him unique—is how upfront he is about his sexuality. As much as his aversion to having sex with Katie is funny, it’s also the point at which Max’s somewhat wacky long con can’t be maintained. It’s—somewhat ironically—his only straight moment in the midst of an enormous charade, the moment when he is no longer able to keep a straight face (I will stop making straight puns, I promise). Although Thumbface Larry is treated as something of a joke, by the time Brad discovers him in Max’s apartment their coupling is just Max needing someone to help him blow off steam. That he treats sex so casually makes his anxiety with Katie actually kind of real, affirming that despite his penchant for schemes he is still a real human being with a—complicated—sense of his own identity.
It’s a similar shading to what “The Straight Dope” aims for with Alex, who is often the brunt of jokes about her intelligence from the likes of Dave and Jane (who get segregated off into the storyline as a result). In addition to pointing out that Dave isn’t exactly the brightest human being alive either on numerous occasions, the episode primarily demonstrates that Alex is not without aptitude. She learns about the economy, she internalizes the principles of Sun Tzu, and she learns was a salon is. What she also learns is that she hates smart people, because their goal in life is often to make people around them feel like they’re not as smart as they are. The result is an Alex that knows more about the world but isn’t going to entirely change herself as a result, and thus an Alex the show can continue to make fun of while simultaneously acknowledging that it’s not the entirety of her character. It’s a classic sitcom trick, but it’s also one that I think works well for Alex as a character. Elisha Cuthbert has developed into a reliable and great comic performer, but there’s a vulnerability to her performance that “The Straight Dope” is able to explore as she goes from putting one over on Jane to having one pulled over on her by the Freud detractors at her salon.
The episode as a whole reminded me of what How I Met Your Mother has been struggling with lately, which is how to reconcile Barney’s engagement to Robin with the fact that’s a really horrible person, particularly to women. It helps that no character on Happy Endings going through a personal change is as odious as Barney can be, but it also helps that the show’s status quo is already so darn chaotic. Penny’s engagement has been almost seamlessly integrated into the story in part because there’s no time to dwell on its impact when the show just barrels forward. Despite a lack of intense seriality, there is nonetheless a momentum here, a momentum that carried well through the two episodes airing back-to-back and should hopefully carry well as the show finishes out its season in the weeks ahead. It’s also a momentum that, one would hope, the people at ABC are paying attention to; if they need something to keep their minds off the ratings, the show itself is offering a damn fine distraction these days.
“In The Heat Of The Noche”: B+
“The Straight Dope”: A-
- As always, grading a show for the first time is a shot in the dark for me. I thought the laughs moved more quickly in the former, but liked the character work better in the latter, so the distinction was made accordingly. But if you put them the other way around I wouldn’t fight it.
- So I tried to write down as many jokes as I could, but y’all it was difficult. Respect to Sims.
- Case in point: David Alan Grier’s evolving description of his former business partner Robert Huggs, who was buried face-down in the ceiling while smiling, except with someone else’s face, because of a botched Face/Off surgery.
- Brad’s 23rd favorite movie, which Jane was hoping he would land on sooner: Sister Act II: Back In The Habit.
- The back-to-back episodes made for a nice Alex case study, given she opened with “Winter is terrible for the store industry” in the group breakfast that launches the first half hour.
- Between Dave actually providing a dramatic soundtrack and Alex actually having a cricket infestation, “In The Heat Of The Noche” was really invested in sonic humor.
- “Are you not watching Nashville? Get on it”: Lots of ABC synergy in the reality TV mentions in “The Straight Dope,” but Max’s Nashville fandom in “In The Heat of The Noche” was the most direct.
- If you had told me when I woke up today that I’d watch something with a Kathryn Bigelow marries Bam Bam Bigelow joke in it, I wouldn’t believe you. Mostly because I’m not a morning person and would still be half asleep, mind you, but also because it’s ridiculous (and great).
- What IS an Ira Glass, really?
- I thought it was strange that Dave didn’t specifically reference the time he got arrested for scalping tickets during his paranoia about scalped tickets.
- “I saw Yes Man instead”: why Max doesn’t know who Sean Penn played in Milk.
- “I don’t think that lines up with what I just learnt about the economy…or what I’ve always known about bubbles”: Alex on Dave’s explanation of the economy.
- Brad, definitely not making any kind of meta commentary: “You know, I’m starting to think Max is the least gay of all of us. What a fresh character. ”
- The pitch for Alex’s salon: “Tonight is going to be a veritable who’s who of people who respond to flyers they see on community college bulletin boards.”
- Things Max hates most, as guessed by Penny: “Exercise? Bathe? Kill spiders? Hold farts in? Not eat sugar directly out of the bag? Have sex with a woman? Touch corduroy? Oh, it’s touch corduroy, dee!”
- “You had me at watch crap. Then you lost me at ironically. Then I just got hungry.” Never change, Alex.