For those familiar with Brian Taylor‘s output thus far, from the notorious Crank to the easily forgettable Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the cocaine-rush camerawork and general spazzed-out tone of Syfy’s Happy!, his latest TV project, will not come as a surprise. As with those films, the energy that Taylor and his creative colleagues bring to Happy! in the way of its blitzkrieg editing, effects-heavy imagery, and the aforementioned antic camerawork animates what is otherwise an extremely lazy yet agreeably quirky story. Taylor, who created and adapted the series with Grant Morrison, who penned the source material of the same name, is still a technical virtuoso — he’s a far more audacious student of the Michael Bay playbook than Zack Snyder — but his choice in narrative here puts his very real talents toward material that could only please the most insufferable, self-important, and cynical type of audience.
This is to say that Happy! frequently toes the line between pitch-black gallows humor and cutesy nonsense in every part of its production, beginning with the conceit. Several years removed from his role as Elliot Stabler in Law & Order: SVU, Christopher Meloni stars as Nick Sax, a former NYPD detective-hero turned degenerate hitman who can barely spend a minute without some upper or downer going down his gullet. It’s a trite character enlivened only by Meloni, a brilliant comedic actor, and the groaning familiarity of the character only grows worse when he becomes the target of a citywide manhunt for killing the four Scaramucci brothers, one of whom has kept a secret mafia password that could be the key to untold riches and power. Learning about all of this alone made me search frantically for the remote and I haven’t even gotten to the flying blue unicorn that gives this maddeningly inept show its title.
Indeed, the animated flying unicorn named Happy, voiced by Patton Oswalt, doesn’t fully appear until Sax is being rushed to the hospital after the Scaramucci hit. While our not-so-noble protagonist is forcing his EMTs to dope him up with morphine, Happy is trying to convince him to hunt down an evil Santa (Joseph D. Reitman) who has been abducting children and holding them captive in wooden crates in his house for unclear reasons. As the narrative lays it out, Oswalt’s Happy is the imaginary friend of one particular captive child who has a pretty obvious connection to Sax that the show’s writers nevertheless try to build into an early twist.
Sax’s drugged-up journey to find the little girl and rid himself of the nattering unicorn is essentially the plot of the series for at least the first few episodes but Sax is antagonized and bothered from all sides. Taylor and his writing team have fashioned a world where essentially everyone is awful and all good is immediately fleeting, which might be easier to tolerate if it wasn’t so clear that the show’s nihilistic bent is supposed to be interpreted as cool rather than tragic or even enraging. If anything, it’s mostly supposed to be funny, such as when Sax kills a man receiving oral sex from an angelic prostitute while in a bug costume, who himself was preparing to kill the young woman who is, er, servicing him. At another point, a professional torturer, Smoothie (Patrick Fischler), taunts Sax by promising that he will cut off his manhood “like sliced salami.”
It’s not just defused threats like this that make Happy! increasingly difficult to care about at all. Almost all the cops are seen as crooked, and the ones who aren’t are idiots who can’t even be bothered to care about abduction. There’s a running joke about the annoyance and overall falseness of children’s TV programming that goes nowhere, and the bounds of mortal life are jettisoned in the name of zaniness. In its central dynamic, the series seeks a balance not unlike the one found in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but the creative team is not interested in the hard work of depicting grief and bigotry without making a big laugh out of those feelings. It’s also not interested in jokes that don’t involve sex or death, for the most part. In essence, the series is a live-action cartoon that also happens to feature an animated character, thus paring down the sense of creative wonder on display. Meloni holds things together admirably but even his rousing comedic inventiveness gets drowned out by the empty edginess that Taylor & Co. have evinced here.
Happy! premieres on Syfy on December 6th at 9 p.m.