Kathryn Hahn, Sawyer Shipman, Steve Coogan

If “Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus And Alois Alzheimer” represented an auspicious start to Showtime’s Happyish, then “Starring Marc Chagall, Abuela and Adolf Hitler” is the show digging itself into an even deeper hole, showing that the inconsistent storytelling and complete lack of dramatic tension wasn’t a byproduct of a premiere meant to set up this world, but is perhaps built right into the DNA of the show. “Starring Marc Chagall, Abuela and Adolf Hitler” takes all the worst parts of the premiere and, to paraphrase the great faux-documentary Spinal Tap (which is definitely not made by a documentarian), turns them up to 11.

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It turns out that the rumors are true, and that every episode of Happyish is destined to start with a profanity-laced diatribe. As much as I love seeing Kathryn Hahn give two middle fingers right to the camera, these pre-credits sequences are already proving to be awkward, a clumsy and on-the-nose way to introduce the thematic territory that the episode is going to cover. In fact, the pre-credit sequences are representative of Happyish‘s larger issue, which is that the storytelling often leans towards telling rather than showing. You see, we know “Starring Marc Chagall, Abuela and Adolf Hitler” is going to be somewhat about Jewish and maternal guilt because the short rant at the start of the episode lays it all out for us. It’s contrived, meaning that every episode stumbles out of the gate, trying to orient itself and find its footing just as it’s getting started.

The other looming issue with Happyish is that there’s no urgency to the narrative, and that leaves this episode feeling like dead weight. Even shows that are light on plot like Enlightened or Togetherness made motions towards larger character arcs, understanding that if there’s no “big” plot, then the story lies in the emotional growth (or regression) of the main characters. For the most part, the world of Happyish is populated by caricatures, from the hip Swedes who want to market the Keebler elves to Millenials by changing them from cartoons to real people and making realistic short films about their lives, to the passive aggressive Jewish mother who’s represented by a talking cardboard box here. Ideally, these caricatures would be satirical, allowing Lee and Thom to meaningfully comment on corporate culture and maternal guilt. Thom just sighs a lot though, frustrated by the new branding of the Keebler elves but never doing much to comment on why he’s frustrated; spilling coffee on a couch that the Swedes took from him doesn’t count. Happyish just assumes that if the audience is presented with characters boasting villainous traits, then said audience will automatically identify with the protagonist. The problem lies in the fact that the writing on the show has done nothing to position Thom as a protagonist, or even given the audience any reason to care about him. There’s a detail about Thom maybe losing his job if he can’t adapt to the Swedes’ style, but it’s hardly mentioned or explored, leaving Happyish with a giant void in its centre where dramatic tension should be.

It’s a shame that “Starring Marc Chagall, Abuela and Adolf Hitler” spends so much time rolling its eyes at, among other things, our culture’s empty and ludicrous marketing–the Coca-Cola meeting about marketing happiness in a time of discontent doesn’t quite hit the satire mark it’s aiming for–because there are moments of heart scattered throughout the episode which show promise. The way Lee and Thom bond over their exhaustion with the world, be it a passive aggressive (but absent) mother or toque-wearing Swedes, is one of the few genuine relationships the show has presented so far. Hahn and Coogan have a natural chemistry that shines through during their midday phone call. Thom urges Lee to send back the gift that Lee’s mother sent for Julius because he knows that it’s not a gift for Julius, it’s a “fuck you” to Lee. In that moment we get a sliver of shared history, of the way a couple who have spent years together understand each other on a deep, intimate level. It’s the kind of character work necessary to get us hooked, to get us caring about these people and their midlife crisis.

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Such moments of heart are few and far between though. When Lee, Thom, and Julius go out for dinner, spending time in their coveted family bubble, free from any outside intruders, it’s a nice insight into their family dynamic that deepens our understanding of these characters. In scenes like this one, the touching and meaningful family drama pokes through, throwing aside the show’s more cynical and self-congratulatory tendencies. Happyish could use a lot more scenes like that, where characters are more than just caricatures, and have feelings and motivations that drive them to lash out against overbearing Swedes or stab an Amazon box with a guilt-trip tendency. “Starring Marc Chagall, Abuela and Adolf Hitler” shows no such interest in those stories though, instead establishing that Happyish is largely a show that would rather stand back and, in very broad strokes, critique a capitalistic culture rather than engage with the story that’s sitting right there: how this capitalistic culture effects the family unit. There are signs that that’s what Happyish wants to do, but first it has to step down from the soapbox and get its hands dirty.

Stray observations:

  • The end of this episode, when Lee sends the present back to her mother, had me feeling pretty Brad Pitt.
  • There was a lone funny bit in the episode where Thom is constantly confused by the new conference room designations, which now take their names from authors, artists, and filmmakers because the Swedes want to instill a creative office culture.
  • Someone should tell the writers that just because the script mentions Philip Roth doesn’t mean your show suddenly absorbs his shrewd deconstruction of American society and idealism.
  • A series of live-action Keebler elf short films directed by Rob Reiner sounds horrible. I know the Swedes are supposed to be villains, but are they also supposed to be terrible at their jobs?

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