Chris Meloni in Happy! (Photo: Peter Kramer/Syfy)

Even if you haven’t read Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s comic book, there’s a lot about Syfy’s Happy! adaptation that will feel familiar. The gritty underworld, an indifferent or oblivious populace, and the one man keeping the darkness at bay can all be found individually or in various combos on everything from procedurals to Marvel’s The Punisher (not to mention a wide swath of films). But the most immediately recognizable element of this demented little drama is Chris Meloni as a conflicted (former) cop. The Law & Order: Special Victims Unit alum has taken up residence in the violent, hyperkinetic playground of Morrison and Crank director Brian Taylor’s making, which also, intentionally or not, serves as a continuation of his most famous role to date.

As Elliot Stabler, Meloni played good cop/worse cop on Dick Wolf’s Law & Order spin-off for 12 seasons. That dedicated detective was aggressive from the start, but several episodes centered on just how tenuous Stabler’s hold on his anger was after a decade spent dealing with sexual predators. The character even admitted to fantasizing about going full vigilante, which became an increasingly pressing concern for his superiors and partner (Mariska Hargitay). He walked away before crossing the line (and after contract negotiations between Meloni and NBC fell through), leaving a void that the series has never been able to completely fill in the intervening six seasons.

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In its first two episodes, Happy! promises to unleash Stabler’s dark side once and for all. And though that arc doesn’t come from the source material, it’s easily the most compelling thing about the show, Patton Oswalt’s charming voiceover aside. Morrison and Robertson’s four-issue series still provides the framework: Nick Sax (Meloni) has gone from hero cop to hired gun for reasons not yet fully known. He’s a drunk so used to being unceremoniously dumped at death’s doorstep that he wonders if he isn’t “un-killable.” The indiscriminate hitman is too miserable to make a real go of his life post-divorce and police career, but there’s also something preventing him from offing himself, a level of consideration he gives few others.

Nick’s yanked out of his booze- and pill-filled purgatory following two significant developments. The first is, he may have been made privy to something that, according to a nameless henchman, is like “the Ark Of The Covenant for hoods.” No one really knows what that means, but everyone from foot soldiers to capos are trying to get their hands on it—and Nick. But he’s also roused from his wallowing by a little winged unicorn named Happy (Oswalt, who may as well just voice the nation’s conscience at this point.) Oddly, the animated creature isn’t just a result of Nick subsisting on a steady diet of well whiskey and painkillers. He’s the imaginary friend of an adorable little girl named Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo), who’s in very real danger.

Give or take a hoofed Jiminy Cricket, Happy!’s plot could play out as one of countless ripped-from-the-headlines stories turned nail-biting hours of TV. The show’s beyond-grimy setting and Meloni’s gravelly voice also lend themselves well to a Dashiell Hammett adventure. There are other, more recent inspirations—Morrison and Taylor’s action sequences mix Hannibal’s geysers of blood with Preacher’s saturated color palette (Robertson’s artwork in the comics is more muted by comparison). And at just eight episodes, it has the same vicious bang for your buck as Stan Against Evil and Ash Vs. Evil Dead. These echoes of other series don’t drown out Happy!’s own voice, but the show does struggle to make itself heard in the premiere.

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Meloni provides a solid core for the show, slipping seamlessly into the role of a deviant, his cocked eyebrow now more roguish than quizzical. Even without a little blue unicorn to chide him, there’s an air of regret about Nick, though he also obviously relishes his job. Despite his past heroics, Nick is currently a very bad guy, and Meloni is clearly enjoying walking that line. The actor’s shown off his own deranged range in the Wet Hot American Summer franchise, and before that, HBO’s Oz. And the role of Nick Sax, though inspired by a minor comic title, is kind of a culmination of his career to date.

Lili Mirojnick as Detective Meredith McCarthy in Happy! (Photo: Syfy)

But in their premiere, the show’s creators have trouble lining up the more fantastical side of Happy! with the drama. Morrison and Taylor’s scripts deftly handle the dark humor, but Oswalt’s avatar is introduced in a bit that feels more Look Who’s Talking than Pulp Fiction. The hits Nick carries out are played for laughs, but at first, having a buck-toothed cartoon floating around is a little too reminiscent of The Flintstones’ Great Gazoo episodes. But once these unlikely partners meet up, everything else clicks. The number of enemies increases exponentially—these are some awfully religious perpetrators—and there’s another morally compromised cop (Lili Mirojnick) who’s deceptively helpful. And, in one of the goriest moments, Happy! makes the case for stucco.

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When all of its parts are working in unison, Happy! is a stylish mix of violence and unhinged humor, which, while not exactly a fresh concept, still manages to be engrossing. It’s also easily the most profane offering Syfy’s ever made (even the unicorn ends up doing rails, so this is really not for family viewing). The vigilante angle may be all too common, and taken on its own, it doesn’t elevate Happy! beyond a run-of-the-mill vengeance story. But as a spiritual (but incredibly irreverent) companion to the procedural that once defined Meloni’s career, it provides some closure while also offering the actor a chance to reinvent himself.