Sawyer Shipman, Kathryn Hahn

If there’s one thing remarkable about Showtime’s Happyish, it’s that the show is ambitiously formless. Stories about middle-aged men feeling out of touch with or angry at the world, thinking about death at nearly every turn when they’re not thinking about how to provide for their families, are a dime a dozen, so if you’re going to map out another one of those stories, you might as well do it outside the form of a traditional narrative. Happyish is interesting–or maybe curious is a better word–for how it has yet to introduce any sort of meaningful conflict into the lives of the Payne family. Shalom Auslander seems to imagine his show as truly representative of life, in that there’s no connecting dots or overarching narrative that guides us to a some sort of goal, but rather just a series of peaks and valleys that we attempt to make sense of.

That kind of organic approach to storytelling is admirable, but unfortunately, it doesn’t make for good television. Initially, I assumed the listless nature of Happyish, the complete lack of tension or conflict, was a way to build a world that felt real and lived-in, to let stories unfold at a slower pace. In the first few moments of the premiere, that was true; the post-dinner conversation between the Lee, Thom, and their friends had a natural feel to it. Three episodes into the season though, it’s clear that Happyish isn’t interested in constructing a show that mimics reality or being patient with storytelling, but is rather more interested in constructing straw men in the form of corporate overlords and the evils of advertising. Much like last week’s episode, “Starring Vladimir Nabokov, Hippocrates And God” purports to be about the death and loss and aging, but these are just themes that the show trots out in order to sound sophisticated and deep. Happyish desperately wants to find a sweet spot between middle-aged ennui, corporate satire in the vain of Office Space, and curse-laden family drama. Happyish can’t find a balance though, meaning that “Starring Vladimir Nabokov, Hippocrates And God” is a mess of varying tones and creative visions.

The “comedy” aspect of tonight’s episode comes from the continuing story of the revamped Keebler elf marketing strategy, which sees the elves moving from animated to real people. Rob Reiner has in fact agreed to direct a series of short films, and his enthusiasm is only outweighed by his need for more realism, more gritty stories. Freddy getting an ‘F’ on a paper isn’t good enough; the films should deal with heavier subjects, like loss and disease. While it’s enjoyable to watch Reiner ham it up and play the overbearing director with a ridiculous vision, it’s also representative of the episode’s core problem, which is that this is satire without a clear target. Clearly the Swedes’ idea to bring the elves to life, and Reiner’s vision for the films, is ridiculous and would never fly at any real advertising agency, but by exaggerating the performances and the pitch idea, who or what is Happyish skewering? Furthermore, the show seems to forget that good satire, while sharp in its cultural criticism, is still supposed to be funny. Every scene in this episode with Reiner or the Swedes–or really any of the scenes that take place at Thom’s office–are painfully unfunny because the “jokes” are self congratulatory and the target of the satire is unclear.

Perhaps even less hilarious is Thom’s various interactions with the GEICO lizard, a vision spawned by the fact that the Swedes want to let their $35 million dollar insurance client, New York Life, walk out the door. There’s something interesting in the premise, evidenced when Thom gives a rousing monologue near the episode’s end that explores how the insurance industry veers towards comedy in their marketing despite being an industry that deals in disaster. When Thom urges the New York Life representatives to reconsider their marketing strategy, telling them to “be the adults in the room” and not be distracted by the loud kid’s table, it’s moving and poignant, insightfully grappling with the way advertising and marketing can be viewed as a distraction from the harsher truths of life. It’s such a small moment though, a quiet one amongst the rest of the noise. The noise is Thom flinging the GEICO lizard across the room and telling him to “fuck off,” or watching Thom wince as his colleague pitches a marketing strategy for the U.S. Army that involves sticking it to your parents because they hate “your rap music, your video games, and your friends.”

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The family drama portion of the episode is by far the most compelling (a term used lightly) stuff here. Thom, with New York Life ready to walk out as a client, is seeing death all around him. His son has a bug and his fever just keeps rising, and he can’t help but picture him dying while he argues with Lee about the best way to treat him. Then, while shopping for “medium asshole” clothes, Jonathan tells him that he’s dying, or at least dying in the way that everybody’s dying. He’s going for tests; “tests for everything,” he says before listing off a series of diseases that may or may not apply to him. It’s in these conversations that we can find the realism, humanity, and dark humor that the rest of the show is desperately looking for. These scenes are clearly meant to offset the more outrageous ones set within the corporate world, but by painting in such broad strokes, by portraying office culture in such an exaggerated way, these scenes of humanity lose their poignancy. Without that humanity striking a chord, “Starring Vladimir Nabokov, Hippocrates And God” is a muddled bit of satire, and an angry and self-satisfied episode of television.

Stray observations:

  • Ellen Barkin’s Dani is perhaps the only exaggerated character that works on this show. The scene where she gets coffee and is impatient with or downright disdainful of just about everybody around here was the only moment in this episode that actually made me laugh out loud.
  • I’m holding out hope that the show breaks out of its storytelling pattern. Every episode so far has the exact same structure and features largely the same set pieces, from the terrible ad pitches to Thom’s monologue and a final scene at the Payne house.
  • I want a running clock that’s keeping track of the amount of time Steve Coogan’s Thom spends covering his face in frustration.
  • As bad as all of the advertising campaign pitches are, the “when it hits the fan” one was at least somewhat clever and fun.

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