MTV’s scripted pilots are always hard to figure out. Most of them have potential, but few know what to do with it. Awkward. is their biggest success, quality-wise, even though it’s struggling to fix itself after a rough patch. Faking It took a confusing premise and made an even more confusing first season; its aim is to be groundbreaking, but this intention gets marred by the writing. Finding Carter had such an original and interesting idea at its center, but the show escalated the drama with every episode, becoming nothing more than a nonsensical (if addictive) hate-watch. MTV’s latest attempt is Happyland, a comedy that desperately wants to tell a good story. Unfortunately, its writers just don’t know how to write one.
The best thing about Happyland is its setting: a popular amusement park in the company-owned town of Dazzle. Amusement parks are bursting with potential for comedy and drama, especially because of the bored and hormonal teenagers who work there in close quarters. Running rides can feel more like summer vacation than a job. It’s also similar to summer camp because you’re almost forced to form quick friendships, to have fleeting first relationships, to get high on the job and sneak around to drink once the sun goes down. It’s the sort of experience that Adventureland captures wonderfully but that Happyland stumbles over throughout. The setting isn’t used as well as it could be here, save for a few shots of teens drinking near a roller coaster, some sight gags involving the costumes (and lots of cheap metaphors involving the Prince and Princess costume, as to be expected), and a training class in a later episode.
At the center of Happyland is Lucy (Bianca Santos, too good for this role), who works at the park alongside her very young single mother, Gloria (Camille Guaty), who often pretends that the two are sisters. Lucy is the ambitious type. She wants to get the hell out of dodge and prove that she’s better than the park and her mother’s life — her mother is sort of a career princess at the park, so Lucy exists in Gloria’s shadow. Lucy and Gloria have a complicated relationship that Happyland makes frustratingly simplistic: Lucy is tasked with picking up groceries while her mother spends her time hitting on young men. It’s a classic role reversal about a stunted parent and the child she forces to grow up too fast. Happyland does nothing to add any nuance to the story, just plays it straight and boring like it does with so many elements of the episodes screened for critics (the first and the third, oddly).
So Lucy wants to leave Happyland, to move on and work somewhere more in touch with reality (in this case, some fancy do-gooder company called Relief Partners), in order to avoid becoming her mother: struggling to live in a fairy tale for her entire life. As you can imagine, though, there are plenty of things keeping her at the park, including her botched job interview and — surprise! — a cute boy. Enter Ian Chandler (Shane Harper), who has an instant connection with Lucy (is there any other way for television teens to connect but instantly and in a single moment?). He is the perfect MTV love interest: blandly cute and blandly interesting with a bland secret (he is the owner’s son; everyone immediately finds out), and so on. They pose as prince and princess, he races her to her job interview, and the two end up kissing — which leads directly to the episode’s biggest reveal (and this isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read anything about the show): Ian and Lucy might be brother and sister.
Why? Because this is MTV. Because this wouldn’t be an MTV show without a silly hook, and because the network is always trying to find a new way to destroy what could have been an OK show. But this hook isn’t just silly — it’s desperate. There are plenty of ways for a show like Happyland to provide a pilot cliffhanger, yet it goes straight for the incest jugular. At the TCAs, the panel was quick to shrug off any concerns about the storyline and suggest that maybe Lucy and Ian aren’t actually brother and sister. Which raises the question: Why the hell would you introduce this potential plot point if you’re just going to later throw it out the window? Was there no other way the writers could think of to portray a will-they/won’t-they relationship besides this? It’s not so much shocking as it is lazy.
Maybe the incest hook is there because, without it, Happyland would be nothing more than an average melodrama with clunky dialogue (“There’s nothing wrong with trying to better yourself, like when you see fat people exercising”) and a love story that’s impossible to get invested in. But hey, for some reason, Josh Groban is on the show. So there’s that.