In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. In this installment: Happy Endings, which started streaming on Hulu this month.
Happy Endings is one of those shows whose cancellation still inspires gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from its audience—while people who never saw the sitcom during its three-season run on ABC look on perplexed. On the surface, the show just looks like any of a number of urban ensemble “hangout comedies,” like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, My Boys, even Seinfeld. But the show—following six Chicago friends who try to keep the gang together after flighty Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) leaves wannabe “cool guy” Dave (Zachary Knighton) at the altar—deserves a closer look. It shares an unbridled group chemistry with the shows mentioned above, but its bizzaro dialogue and deep reserve of pop-culture references—all delivered at light speed—were unlike that of any other series. What other hangout sitcom would drop jokes about flowy pants from Angela Bassett’s fictional fashion line (“Bassett By Angela For Angela Bassett”), a homemade trashcan stove (a.k.a. “trove”), or a food truck called Steak Me Home Tonight?
Happy Endings fearlessly delivered pratfalls and slapstick along with its non sequiturs and cutaway gags, setting it all against the apparent backdrop of a heartwarming comedy. But its ultimate goal was hilarity, which it achieved by bypassing loftier ideals that tripped up lesser sitcoms (such as learning, or loving). All six players—Cuthbert, Knighton, Eliza Coupe, Adam Pally, Damon Wayans Jr., and Casey Wilson—brought something new to the sitcom table, and the meshing and shuffling of their characters made for a sitcom that felt newer still.
The following are five episodes that will help the unitiated become familiar with this brilliantly funny show. They might begin with a familiar setup—Brad’s straitlaced dad comes to town! The gang tries to avoid an old friend!—but they soon take a U-turn, and then navigate a few unexpected turns before reaching a destination that’s very unfamiliar, but still funny.
Happy Endings’ first season was pretty sly about how weird its world and characters actually were. The show started with a premise as generic as “Who keeps the friends in a breakup?”, but by the series finale, that theme was more of a punchline to anyone who could even remember it. As early as episode five, “Like Father, Like Gun” captured the spirit of Happy Endings: how terrible these characters could behave, even when trying to have heartwarming moments. Small examples include Brad and his father’s firecracker shenanigans in their “Cat’s In The Cradle” montage and Max and Dave setting an adjacent apartment building on fire with Nerf guns. But the Penny/Alex “boy slump” plot pretty much defined the entire series as a whole. After all, few things are more Happy Endings than Alex’s gluttonous affection for ribs (“You just gotta take it down. Like a champ”) and Penny and Alex’s mimosa-fueled brunch, in which they dive from love to hate with their waitress. But the sitcom gimmick of Penny’s realization that she can only speak Italian when she’s drunk immediately turns around with the reveal of just what type of show Happy Endings really is. The darkness of Penny’s Italian boyfriend’s story about childhood abuse at the hands of his drunk father—as Penny searches for alcohol to chug—is so risky, but it’s so right.
Valentine’s Day provides a divine stomping ground for Chicago’s Ridiculous Six to screw up or get screwed in, given that relationships, dating, and singledom collectively fueled Happy Endings. Everyone’s working something out: Penny can’t ditch a guy (pejoratively referred to as “The Winker”) because of the pre- and post-holiday “breakup window,” Dave’s looking forward to “VD sex” with a new fling, Alex hopes to capture the holiday’s true spirit, Brad has a list of surprises to confirm with Jane, and Max has resigned himself to driving a limo around for hopeful romantics willing to shill out $69 on an assortment of not-so-hot packages. Like a ’roided-out Seinfeld episode, “The St. Valentine’s Day Maxssacre” unifies each of its respective threads by rolling through its premise (quite literally, in fact). It also unravels a charming love story that’s been wrapped with boisterous tales of false assumptions, led by guest star James Wolk. And while Brad never whips out his P’Angelo, we do get to watch him frolic in a dentist’s office to the sultry sounds of an old Dean Martin song. If any of that sounds like a Friends episode, rest assured, they know.
The mania and meta-ness of Happy Endings leads the show to poke fun at classic sitcom farce in this episode, which is in and of itself a classic sitcom farce. To avoid a slightly clingy childhood friend (while still wanting her to believe that they’re all actually nice people), the gang weaves a web of lies that results in a staged baby shower for Jane, a fake fatal illness for Dave, and Alex’s fluctuating sexuality. To make this parody’s source material all the more clear, there’s even a Three’s Company nod, complete with Mr. Roper-esque nosy landlord. Happy Endings episodes often divided its delightful cast to conquer separate A- and B-plots, but this episode effortlessly throws them all together—along with Max’s trashcan stove and Penny’s Greeting Feline notebooks. With sublime guest stars like Mary Elizabeth Ellis as the childhood friend and Ben Falcone as the sneaky landlord, “Big White Lies” is one of Happy Ending’s most breathless and entertaining half-hours, and a perfect gateway to the fun and frolic of the rest of the series. Don’t miss Max’s infomercial at the end.
Season two was Happy Endings’ lightning-in-a-bottle year, but the show’s final batch of episodes occasionally reaches the same delirious heights. “The Marry Prankster” even manages to do “Big White Lies” one better, tackling two sitcom staples in the course of 22 minutes: A prank war and a marriage proposal. While braiding together three ongoing arcs—Dave and Alex are dating again, Brad’s out of work, and Penny’s got a steady guy (handsome TV comedy ringer Nick Zano)—the episode plays like a high-octane comedic thriller, as the gang waits for the other six shoes to drop after they set Max up with a fake lotto ticket. Pins and needles (and exploding pies and airbag couch cushions) are a brilliant use of the show’s liveliness, while the pranks and plotlines are a good example of Happy Endings’ ability to share. It’s a quintessential ensemble piece from the premier ensemble sitcom of the 2010s, driven by the show’s breakout character but stolen by its secret weapon: Elisha Cuthbert as Alex “I’m not as dumb as I am” Kerkovich.
Happy Endings’ season-two premiere is exhilarating because there’s nothing more delightful than seeing a sitcom click into place in its second year as a result of unambiguous tweaks to the characters and premise. The first mini-batch of episodes helped the creative brain trust—first-time creator David Caspe, assisted by sitcom vets like Josh Bycel and Jonathan Groff—figure out what worked and what didn’t. The central couple got the biggest tweaks, with Dave becoming a pretentious weirdo and Alex evolving from the girl who sourced Hitler jokes on Wikipedia to being the girl who would confuse Wikipedia for an infection you get from swimming in a lake. “Blax, Snake, Home” is the first indication of the changes that made season two such a delight, and it hits the ground running with a chaotic cold open that summarizes the show’s premise and introduces each character in an unbelievably efficient manner. Then it shows off its knack for elegant three-plot structures, loosely pairing Dave and Alex in one story, Max and Brad in another, then giving Penny a solo journey and allowing Jane to flit in and out of each one. Max and Brad’s story (the portion responsible for the “Blax” of the title) is one of the more interesting the show ever did, as it acknowledges race in a breezy and observant way. Brad reveals that as much as he loves hanging out with the gang, he likes hanging out with his black friends too. It adds some delicate nuance to Brad, as well as allowing him to introduce his black friends, which results in one of my favorite exchanges in the show. Darryl: “Hey Brad, if I hook you up with a partially used Borders gift card, you think you could give me a ride to small-claims court?” Max: “Crap. Dammit. I am white Darryl.”