In Showtime’s dark comedy Happyish, created by Shalom Auslander, Steve Coogan is Thom Payne, a 44-year-old creative director at a New York advertising firm. He’s pulled in two different directions by the contentment he feels at home with his wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn) and his son Julius (Sawyer Shipman), versus the depressing nature of the corporate rat race. It leaves him feeling “happyish,” though viewers may identify with just the -ish.
Thematically, Happyish isn’t covering any new ground. It’s partly a story of midlife crisis, but it’s tonally similar to HBO’s Silicon Valley, which also illustrates the absurdities of a youth-obsessed culture and the shiny allure of social media. During an otherwise tired rant to his new Swedish bosses, Gottfrid (Nils Lawton) and Gustaf (Tobias Segal), Thom brings up a fair point about why a brand like Pepto-Bismol would want you to follow them on Twitter. The thought hangs there for a moment, but then Thom, and his bosses, brush it aside and move on.
It’s not that Thom is wrong in how he turns his nose up at corporate culture, or points out the shallow absurdities of his chosen field of work, it’s that Happyish doesn’t offer anything deeper than thirty minute cynical treatises. Lee is the same, as she rails against her manipulative Jewish mother. Friends of theirs (played by Molly Price and Andre Royo) are also in agreement. In an early conversation, those friends admit their son is as asshole, which is better than Julius (they reason), who is just a pussy. Both couples laugh in agreement, drink wine, and essentially toast to their superior understanding of the realities of life.
And therein lies the problem with Happyish. The comedy doesn’t just come from privilege, it comes from smug privilege. Edginess in the show is defined by quick, illicit smoke breaks, and a deluge of lazy profanity that obscures the meaning of the statements it’s meant to augment. It’s easy to agree with Thom sometimes, and think the views he espouses are clever or even funny. But to borrow a line from another show, “I don’t have to like you, I just have to believe in you.” There’s nothing about Thom or Lee or their friends in the first several episodes that makes one want to get to know them any better, and there’s certainly nothing to believe in. If anything, Happyish is about the deconstruction of belief.
Happyish opens each episode with a short tirade and a “fuck you” to one of the episode’s “guests”: Nabokov, Hippocrates, Samuel Beckett. Its aims here are lofty, with humor attempting to be wrought from the juxtaposition of Thom telling Thomas Jefferson to fuck off because he never defined what happiness should look like. Instead, though, it strains to make the joke, just like in animated sequences featuring brand mascots like the Keebler elves and the Geico gecko. Thom beds down with a granny elf and beats up on the gecko, as if these actions really help him stick to the man! as he works on the accounts in the hopes of pleasing the client. Though as Thom’s corporate-focused co-worker Jonathan Cooke (Bradley Whitford) counsels him, “it doesn’t make you a better man. It just makes you a terrible whore.”
Happyish‘s best moments come from Whitford. He’s slightly older than Thom, far more jaded, but also much more willing to play the game to keep his job and the life he’s created for himeslf. When he riffs about Al Qaeda, saying “those homicidal motherfuckers are great at marketing,” and throws out aphorisms like “thinking is not as important as tweeting,” the sad, bald truth of it makes it ruefully funny. He admits to Thom that the Jack Spade shirt he’s holding up will make him look like an asshole, but he pauses to consider and then says, “maybe just medium asshole, though.”
Those ok with just medium asshole should be ok with Happyish, but if the desire is to find a smart, perceptive, dark comedy that really hones in on the absurdities of its setting, the better bets are across the dial on Showtime’s premium cable nemesis HBO, with Silicon Valley and Veep. Happyish‘s study of bourgeois malcontent and neurotic obsessions can at times feel Woody Allen-ish, but more often, it’s just annoying-ish.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Happyish premieres Sunday, April 26th at 9:30 p.m. on Showtime