Steve Coogan, Bradley Whitford

“Starring Sigmund Freud, Charles Bukowski And Seven Billion Assholes” is the best episode of this first season of Happyish for a few reasons. It boasts a more streamlined narrative; the dialogue has a more natural feel to it, less robotic and out of place in the characters’ mouths; lastly, and most importantly, it’s markedly funnier than the three previous episodes combined. For all of its satirical ambitions, Happyish has fell flat on its face when trying to construct actual jokes. There have been cringe worthy and ludicrous moments that Thom–and by extension the audience–rolls his eyes at, but there’s hardly been any substantial punchlines. Through its first three episodes, Happyish took itself way too seriously.

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“Starring Sigmund Freud, Charles Bukowski And Seven Billion Assholes” is a much more playful, loose episode. While it basically follows the narrative pattern of the previous episodes–introductory rant and theme setter, survey of Thom and Lee’s personal struggle on that particular day, an absurd marketing pitch, and the final scene back at home­–much of the fat has been trimmed. Where the previous episodes were convoluted, “Starring Sigmund Freud, Charles Bukowski And Seven Billion Assholes” is lean. The theme of the week is “assholes” in all of their various forms, coupled with the alienation Thom and Lee feel in their personal and professional lives. For Thom, he can’t understand how anybody thinks the Swedes are geniuses, especially after hearing them tout their plan to pitch the “death of advertising” campaign to Coca-Cola, a client that could singlehandedly save the agency from going under. Meanwhile, Lee is dealing with the fact that Julius smashed a bully named Fitzgerald in the face with a book. It’s not that she’s mad that Julius stood up for himself, but rather that she’s confronted by Fitzgerald’s mother, who accuses Julius of being the bully.

Lee’s storyline, which also sees Thom happy that Julius hit that “asshole” Fitzgerald, is the strongest part of the episode. Absent any talking boxes that represent Jewish maternal guilt, Lee’s life really comes into focus, deepening the character in a meaningful way. We get to see Lee frustrated that she can’t find time to paint, that she’s creatively stifled by her duties as a stay-at-home mom. What’s beautiful about this is that Lee doesn’t do anything stereotypical; she doesn’t lash out at her family, or make Julius feel like a burden. Rather, she sees her family as the only sane people on this planet, as the only ones who aren’t, as she puts it, “ass backwards.”

That kind of familial bond is integral to the episode, giving Happyish that solid dose of heart that’s only been seen in fits and starts so far this season. While the visualization of that bond isn’t particularly inventive­–both Lee and Thom envision a mothership coming to take them back to the planet they must really be from­–it does make for the funniest moment of the episode. With Thom sitting through a Sam Adams pitch centered on the horrendous tagline “cooler than cool,” the camera cuts back and forth between him and his coworkers. Once the pitch reaches peak ridiculousness, the camera cuts to Thom, suddenly sporting an alien head. He sighs and says, “I’ve got to get out of this business.” It’s a perfect cut for a laugh, and also humanizes Thom in a way that his previous crankiness and self-righteous didn’t. Here, Thom is the victim of an out-of-touch and selfish corporate world, not the self-satisfied, middle-aged man who rails against millenials just because he’s older. Thom’s exhaustion with his job feels honest and earned for the first time, and that’s a big step forward for the show.

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Much of the relative charm of “Starring Sigmund Freud, Charles Bukowski And Seven Billion Assholes” comes from the performances, from Steve Coogan’s mix of frustration and ambition, to Kathryn Hahn’s laidback but reeling mother role and Bradley Whitford’s sarcastic but lovable take on an ad man with a growing existential crisis. Coogan and Whitford have a natural rapport that adds, depending on which is necessary at the time, either gravitas or levity to their scenes. When Whitford’s Jonathan goes on a tangent about how every person is an asshole, because competitiveness is ingrained in us from the time we’re just sperm, it’s an easy joke but also a sweet moment shared between the two. It’s the kind of faux-profound banter you’d expect from lifetime colleagues and friends, half joking with each other but also making an overall point about human nature.

That rapports between the actors, and the general lack of abrasiveness in this episode–there are no talking logos or mascots, and the diatribe introduction is kept short and punchy–signals promise for Happyish. I assume that Rob Reiner and his gritty plan for the Keebler elves will be back. If that’s the case, at least we got “Starring Sigmund Freud, Charles Bukowski And Seven Billion Assholes”, a well-paced, funny, and often honest episode of television, and a marked improvement on the show’s first three offerings.

Stray observations:

  • First, a programming note: this will be the final episodic review of Happyish at the TV Club. Is anybody even still watching this show? There’s a chance I’ll pop back in with a finale review though, if I make it that far.
  • Fitzgerald’s dad taking pictures of his son at the assmebly with a huge, professionla camera and lens was a wonderful, low-key sight gag that had me laughing. Happyish could really use more of that kind of subtle satire, which comments on social behaviour and our current culture without soapboxing.
  • No overbearing and obtrusive cursing in this episode, even with all the “asshole” talk.
  • Another favorite Thom-Lee/Coogan-Hahn scene from this episode: when they’re talking to Julius about how he’s going to encounter assholes all of his life. It didn’t feel exploitative or novel, but rather in line with what we know about them as parents and people.
  • The Coca-Cola pitch scene was a bit of a mess because it felt so removed in terms of tone from the rest of the episode. It was nice to see the Coca-Cola executives shoot down the Swedes though. Comeuppance can be very sweet.

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