This much can be said for Happyish, Showtime’s latest quasi-sitcom: It doesn’t bait and switch. Such transparent guile is a no-no in the advertising industry, in which Thom Payne (Steve Coogan) struggles to adapt as a 44-year-old man out of touch with an increasingly youth-focused corporate culture. At first blush, Happyish smacks of Showtime’s attempts to substitute an inferior product; its original pilot was shot with the inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman as Thom, and Coogan was recruited following Hoffman’s death. But Happyish favors writing over performances to such a degree that Hoffman’s absence doesn’t linger, and there are no bittersweet “what ifs” to ponder. There’s also no waiting for the show to settle into a groove. Happyish establishes its voice so efficiently, the majority of the audience will know within the first 10 minutes if the show is for them. The remainder should watch those 10 minutes again, this time with the sound on.
Much will be made of the loss of Hoffman, who chose Happyish as his series television debut, but even an actor of his considerable talent would struggle to carry dialogue so heavy and dense it deserves its own square in the periodic table. Creator Shalom Auslander cut his teeth as a satirical essayist, which goes a long way toward explaining why all of Happyish’s characters talk exactly the same, each of them sounding like a robot that eats literary CliffsNotes for fuel. Thom’s conversations, whether they’re with Lee (Kathryn Hahn), his anxious wife, or colleagues at the advertising firm fueling his midlife crisis, are knotty webs of bon mots, rejoinders, and grand pronouncements about the nature of things. Stylized dialogue can be done in a satisfying way, but Auslander’s scripts are so smug, an Aaron Sorkin monologue about a well-read, brunette succubus would make a fine palate cleanser.
The pilot is titled “Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus And Alois Alzheimer,” in keeping with the show’s pretentious naming convention. In it, Thom’s professional life is inverted when his firm hires Gustaf (Tobias Segal) and Gottfrid (Nils Lawton), a pair of 25-year-old social-media magicians. Thom is disillusioned with his business—“Fuck Mad Men,” he says. “There’s nothing cool about advertising; there’s nothing interesting.” Still, Thom remembers a simpler time, back when the ad game was about ideas and whiteboards, not digital savvy. He does everything in his power to defy the firm’s new direction short of replacing the carpet in his office with grass so he can spend the day ordering kids off his lawn.
Thom’s professional angst, as well as his relationship with Lee and their melancholy son Julius (Sawyer Shipman), comprise the entirety of Happyish’s story. The plotting is even more sparse than that of Enlightened, the defunct HBO comedy Happyish most resembles, save for its toxic cynicism and a quality gap too large to quantify. The show is more about its execution than its concept, which is understandable since a heavier plot might prevent Auslander from using any and every opportunity to insert a misanthropic rant. (It’s worth noting that Happyish is semi-autobiographical—Auslander is a 44-year-old ad-agency defector.) Thom spends most of his time bloviating about how everything sucks, and while Coogan does an admirable job of injecting life into the material, Coogan seems to be expending too much effort for such a naturally energetic performer.
Happyish is flush with esteemed actors, including Bradley Whitford as Jonathan, Thom’s boss and work bestie, and Hahn, who also starred in the original pilot, and delivers an astonishing performance as Lee. But none of the cast, which also includes guest stars Ellen Barkin and Carrie Preston, is allowed to shine through the fussy, self-satisfied writing. Happyish is infused with satire, which takes the form of animated brand logos that have prickly, lengthy conversations with the characters. Thom gets well acquainted with the Keebler elves after the Swedish Twitter ninjas suggest freshening up the brand’s identity. Lee is the focus of the second episode, and finds herself arguing with an anthropomorphic cardboard box that has taken on the identity of her guilt-wielding mother, speaking through the Amazon smile logo on a boxed gift.
As it turns out, the Keebler elves and the Amazon smile curse blue streaks, as does everyone in Happyish. Auslander wants to shock the audience with non-stop profanity, but there’s a difference between salty language and salt-as-language. Whatever hope the show had of shocking its audience, it surrenders almost immediately by inuring viewers to its f-bomb fusillade before the pilot is over. Happyish frequently stumbles onto interesting ideas and it gets funnier with each episode. Thom’s arrogance is no more extreme than that of Showtime’s other dramedy antiheroes, and there’s full awareness of how off-putting the character is. He gets temporarily cut down to size in the pilot: “You suck the same cocks we all do, Thom,” says Jonathan. “Wincing at the taste doesn’t make you a better man, it only makes you a worse whore.” Such pearls of profane wisdom are scattered throughout Happyish, but good luck mustering some appreciation for them. There’s no temptation to congratulate Happyish when it’s already so busy congratulating itself.