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Happyish: “Starring Christopher Hitchens, Philip Larkin And Josef Stalin”

Bradley Whitford, Steve Coogan
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Typically a new show uses its first three episodes to hook the viewer. There’s some establishing exposition to be sure, but for the most part, a new show will make sure that it’s first few episodes are representative of the larger season while also deploying some narrative strategies to make sure the audience comes back for more. It’s why so many shows start off one way and then shift gears after a few episodes; look no further than Hannibal, which started out as a grim procedural but slowly morphed into a meditation on death and intimacy complete with ambitious visuals and episodes that work like tone poems.


Happyish is no Hannibal, but it is remarkable how the show managed to shed some of its more obnoxious and unbearable tendencies across its ten-episode first season. What started out as a deeply cynical and misguided satire about Corporate America ended up being, for the most part, a show about how the contemporary family balances the needs of the unit and the needs of the individual. In the world of Happyish, those needs were spiritual and emotional, and often tied to money.

The worst episodes of Happyish in the back half its first season largely focus on MGT and Thom’s disdain for working there. The continued focus on the “real” Keebler elves commercial, and the struggle of working with Rob Reiner, is indicative of the show’s worst tendencies, aiming for biting satire but never really finding a proper target or managing to be particularly funny. “Starring Christopher Hitchens, Philip Larkin And Josef Stalin,” is a perfect representation of the show’s inconsistent first season; it’s neither Happyish at its worst or its best, but falls somewhere in between.

Thom has decided that he’s going to quit MGT, that he can’t spend the rest of his life writing ads. Lee fully supports this move, doing what she can to clean out a room in their house so that Thom can have a space to write his novel and do some freelance work. Such plans are all for naught though as it turns out that Lee is pregnant. That throws all of Thom and Lee’s plans into question, and it’s in that chaos and uncertainty that Happyish finds its most honest and compelling material.

Early in the season I praised the performances of Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn, both of whom brought an earnestness to their portrayals of contemporary parents trying to figure out how to go about raising a kid and dealing with their own issues. The two have a natural chemistry, and some of this season’s best moments are when Lee and Thom are alone, just chatting about their lives.


That’s true of the finale too. The MGT storyline isn’t particularly interesting; it mostly involves Thom wanting to quit, Jonathan doing what he can to save his ass, and the Swedes putting a slide in their workplace. When not focused on MGT though, the finale is moving. When Thom comes home to find that Lee has made an office for him, Coogan adopts a genuinely touched facial expression; there’s so much to be read into that expression, so much relationship history. Earlier, when Lee tells Bella that she’s pregnant, they break down into laughter and anger and joy. “Yay then fuck” as they describe the emotional swing. For a show that can’t seem to ever get its humor right, to find a target for its satire and follow through with something insightful and scathing, there’s a raw honesty to the dramatic elements I just mentioned. The story of the Payne family is one that’s familiar to many people. Thom and Lee deal with financial and spiritual anxiety. They wonder if they’re doing right by their child by not buying him and iPad, or of their reluctance is just singling him out amongst the other children. They do what they can to balance their home life with their careers, and their careers with their real dreams and goals. It’s a precarious balance, and there’s stakes in that story, which is why the first season of Happyish was always at its best when it narrowed its focus to the Paynes.

“Starring Christopher Hitchens, Philip Larkin And Josef Stalin” is, for better and worse, a perfect representation of Happyish’s first season. It’s got a lot of heart in the form of domestic drama, and a fair amount of jokes–the storyline that involves the Swedes putting a slide in the office after they lose the Coke account is one of the show’s better jabs at “positive, fun” corporate culture. Then there’s Thom’s hopeful New Yorker story that he’s writing during his train rides to work, which is painful and unfunny. The story is meant to tackle the “snake oil” brand of motivational speaking, but the whole thing boils down to an extended poop joke. That’s Happyish in a nutshell though: there’s a lot of heart here, but you have to wade through a lot of shit to find it.


Stray observations

  • Kathryn Hahn should be in everything. Absolutely everything.
  • That “radical capitalism” pitch made me want to puke.
  • For the most part, Happyish did away with its opening monologues by the end of the season, which removed some of the grandstanding feel that plagued those early episodes.
  • I think it’s obvious from my thoughts above, but if this was a Parenthood-esque show about the Payne family I’d be tuning in every week.

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