It’s always dangerous to review a comedy based on however many episodes the studio or network sends out, simply because comedy takes more time to gel than any other TV format. The cast needs to find its rhythms, the writers need to figure out what each actor is funniest doing, and the show itself needs to wrestle with tone. I didn’t mind Happy Endings at the start of its first season, but I was also pretty sure it wouldn’t grow into much of anything. The two leads were boring, the show’s tone was often far too smug, and the writing wasn’t as clever as it thought it was, often leaning too heavily on pop culture gags to save the day. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t see myself making time for it on a weekly basis, nor did I think I’d ever have to worry about that fact, since it would be sure to be canceled at the end of its first season (ABC was burning it off, after all). But once other critics started to say the show had gotten better and once ABC renewed it for a second year, perhaps surprisingly, I decided to revisit it.
Honestly, most comedies get better. Even the very worst eventually find one or two things the cast can do well and go to those on occasion. It’s very rare to find a comedy that runs for at least 13 episodes where the actors don’t work well together (there are examples, but for the most part, TV comedy seems to encourage actors getting closer to each other and working well together). The question is whether a comedy will get better enough, whether it will find its way to a place where it’s consistently improving and doing the hard work of progressing from average to good, from good to great, from great to fantastic. Most shows stop when they get to good, content to pretty much plateau there and get to 100 episodes and syndication money (see also: The Big Bang Theory). But the best comedies keep pushing, keep trying to improve, keep finding new ways to tell these old stories.
All of this is a lengthy preamble to say that while Happy Endings isn’t a great show by any means, it’s somehow become a very good one, almost in spite of itself. The writing still lapses into smugness on occasion. The leads are still very boring. And the joke writing, while better than it was, still has a tendency to coast. But dammit, there’s something likable about the show all the same, something that took a while to grow. And where a show like Traffic Light—a show I really quite enjoyed—felt comfortable just stopping at that good level and idling, Happy Endings does seem to be trying to get better, to tell interesting and funny stories about these characters that will at least make us smile.
Let’s start with the storytelling, actually, because that’s still the biggest issue with the show. Take tonight’s season finale, “The Shershow Redemption.” The basic idea is that an old friend of the gang’s, Shershow, is now getting married, and he’s getting married to the greatest woman ever. Shershow, of course, was the loser everybody in the gang compared themselves to, the person they were all certain they were better than. Now that his life is coming together, it provides ample opportunity for the various members of the gang to reexamine their lives. Penny realizes she doesn’t have anyone. Max realizes what a mess his life is. Alex realizes that she’s still just the girl who ruined her own wedding. Naturally enough, Alex nearly throws herself back into ex-fiancee Dave’s arms, Penny fakes a fiancée (by calling on a former gay best friend), and Max struggles to pull himself together.
Now, there’s not a thing in that story that’s unexpected or new. Granted, TV sitcoms can get a lot of mileage by coasting on old story types and figuring out new ways to deploy them. Happy Endings seems most content to use the idea of comic chaos, of having everything getting crazier and crazier, until it all breaks and the wackiness spills all over the place. In this episode, that’s meant to happen thanks to all of the lies the group members tell, either to themselves or to others. (Refreshingly, Penny’s plan to lie about having a fiancée backfires almost immediately because the only version of “straight” her friend can play is Danny Zuko from Grease. Where this plot could have taken up the whole half-hour with more and more elaborate lies—a lesser sitcom would have done this—it instead falls apart amusingly, showing the series IS capable of getting away from warmed-over Friends storylines when it wants to.) But so few unexpected things happen that it’s hard to find that chaos growing too crazy. In its storytelling, at least, Happy Endings is very often content to coast.
And, while we’re on the subject, the storyline of Dave and Alex’s tentative flirtations with getting back together—since they so clearly still love each other and are so clearly headed back in that direction—is a really weak idea to toss at the two leads. Where the four supporting characters are a lot of fun and often very funny, Zachary Knighton and Elisha Cuthbert are fine but not really much else. They’re certainly energetic, and they fit fairly well in the show’s universe, but they’re not doing any of the comic heavy lifting. And their storylines—Dave follows his dreams by opening a food truck, while Alex tries to get back on the dating scene—are non-starters, compared to everybody else. The show is built around Dave and Alex, but it has yet to give us a compelling reason WHY it is. (Similarly, my complaints about the group’s smugness still often stand. The show rarely calls them on their inherent clique-iness and inability to look outside themselves, and it would automatically be a stronger show if it did.)
But I’ve still come to really like Happy Endings, and I’m glad it’s getting a second season, where I’m pretty sure it will turn into a very solid show. It’s done the very basic work of figuring out which actors are best at doing which comic bits, and it’s started to figure out a way to expand its universe. Already, the show is filled with recurring characters and gags that come back satisfyingly fairly often, and the four supporting actors have ended up creating a surprisingly deep ensemble for the show to fall back on. Adam Pally and Casey Wilson, in particular, give Max and Penny lots of fun line readings and physical bits, to the point where I barely notice that Wilson is playing just the latest variation on the sad single girl who can’t find a man. Plus, either the joke writing is getting sharper or I’ve grown accustomed to the actors’ delivery, because where I barely smiled at the show before, there were four or five lines I laughed out loud at tonight, and I never laugh.
So, yeah, every comedy gets better, but not every comedy really makes the effort to figure out what will make it work best. I’m not going to praise Happy Endings as a classic for the ages, and I’m not going to say it’s one of the best comedies on TV. But I am cautiously excited for its second season, a second season that should show whether the show will be content to stop at merely “good” or is going to keep pushing its way on to something more. Put another way: I didn’t know how much affection I’d built up for this show until tonight’s final moments, set at the Shershow wedding dance and featuring the characters cutting a rug together. It’s easy to gripe about the little things this show doesn’t yet do just right, but it’s hard to pin down just what it is that makes it work as well as it does. But if that last scene is any indication, then there’s a whole lot of upside for this show and these characters.