Steve Coogan
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Showtime’s Happyish is immediately familiar to anyone who has watched cable television in the last 10 years or so. Thom Payne (Steve Coogan) is a middle-aged white male with a steady job and a beautiful wife named Lee (Kathryn Hahn in the premiere’s standout performance), and yet there’s just something about his life that’s keeping him from being truly happy. His work at an advertising agency doesn’t seem as pure as it used to, what with all these young guns coming in and squeezing out the old guard with their ideas linked to social media and brand presence. As if that’s not enough, Thom’s relatively comfortable home life also presents a handful of issues to fret over: He’s suffering from erectile dysfunction and, perhaps the greatest sin of all, he’s worried that his son might be a pussy (his words).

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The Happyish premiere is not unlike so many other shows on television where a middle-class, 40-something man is in the throes of an existential crisis, where an unidentifiable emptiness and meaninglessness extends from one’s work life to their home. It’s a familiar tone and narrative­–most recently (and more charmingly) exemplified by HBO’s Togetherness–and one that “Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus And Alois Alzheimer” establishes from the get-go. The episode opens with a voiceover diatribe from Payne, where he laments the current state of America by lambasting things like consumerism and the constant need of the young to amass Facebook friends. It’s the kind of soapbox, “hot take” monologue that would feel right at home on The Newsroom because it takes aim at easy targets yet fails to say anything substantial. There are a few “fucks” thrown in there for good measure, to let you know that Payne is really disgusted by what the human race has become, but the cursing, which is peppered heavily throughout the episode, once again feels empty, merely a way to shock the audience rather than to emphasize a point.

Much of the problem with “Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Alois Alzheimer” is the fact that it thinks too broadly while pushing Payne’s perspective too hard. Writer Shalom Auslander, making his first foray into television with Happyish, presents a muddled script that feels stuffed to the brim with ideas about technology, aging, labor, capitalism, marriage, and a litany of other topics. Such a plethora of themes means that “Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus And Alois Alzheimer” too often shows rather than tells; the cultural critiques that make up the show’s ideology feel contrived, the voice of Auslander rather than the voice of these characters, which makes the premiere feel more like a Twitter rant than a compelling episode of television.

Still, when “Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus And Alois Alzheimer” isn’t peddling caricatures like Payne’s young, European advertising overlords Gottfrid and Gustaf, or using animation to create a lewd interaction between Payne and a Keebler elf for no other reason than to (once again) shock the viewer, the show does present a family drama with some promise. Most of that promise comes down to the fine work by the cast, with Coogan and Hahn in particular displaying a natural chemistry that, with any luck, will promote an emotional center necessary to counterbalance the show’s more angst-ridden, cynical tendencies. That chemistry is best displayed early on, as Thom and Lee celebrate his 44th birthday with their friends and children. After blowing out the candles and talking about how old 44 seems to a kid, the adults retreat to the kitchen to tidy up and lament the fact that their kids are the worst. They worry about their children growing up to be “assholes or pussys,” and while the vulgarity here feels forced, there’s a sentiment there about the unpredictability of raising children that remains intact.

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“Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Alois Alzheimer” is an inauspicious start to Happyish, mostly because the episode lacks a cohesive vision. More than anything, the premiere is a smattering of ideas. By the end of the episode, Thom has lashed out at his European corporate overlords and his work buddy Jonathan (Bradley Whitford), made out with a Keebler elf, taken Viagra in the hopes of pleasing his wife, and had to reckon with the fact that he’s aging out of his job and that it might not be long before an app replaces him. It’s a flimsy set-up, mostly due to a script that’s packed with too many ideas and leans heavy on exposition, but there’s still a slight glimmer of hope in there. Coogan, with The Trip, has proven that he can do middle-aged existential crisis with heart and honesty, while Kathryn Hahn is always a delight. That’s especially true here, as her character avoids the trappings of the nagging, short-of-patience wife and is instead a wonderful partner for Thom, exhausted by the responsibilities of adulthood but also ready to take on everything that’s thrown their way.

Thus, while the first episode of Happyish is often grating and presents a worldview that’s been exhaustingly explored on cable television before, there is a dramatic center that signals a way forward for the show. By focusing on the small compromises we make in our day-to-day lives in order to (hopefully) become better people, and by shining a light on the nuances of aging and parenthood, Happyish, and its stellar cast, might just find a way to stand out in the crowded field of similar shows. Happyish is at its best when it’s quietly musing; for most of the premiere though, it’s shouting as loud as it possibly can.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of Happyish! Let’s hope Showtime’s plan for the season is to start off on the wrong foot and then make us incrementally happier each week.
  • I’ve heard that each episode begins with a diatribe like tonight’s, so that’s something we can all look forward to every week.
  • I can’t overstate how great Hahn is in this episode. Lee already feels like a fully realized character, which is more than can be said for Thom.
  • Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the narrative, but to the show’s credit, this world feels very lived-in already. The writing is too on-the-nose in the premiere, but the character interaction, and their worldview, feels organic. That’s promising.
  • Looking forward to seeing more of Bradley Whitford, who could be the perfect corporate lackey to Thom’s disgruntled underling.
  • Command+C is really coming in handy with these episode titles, let me tell you.

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