The “ish” in the title Happyish is bound to be a theme in reviews of the series. Showtime’s newest comedy is funnyish, entertainingish, goodish. That’s more than just cleverish wordplay; it’s a hesitance — a resistance — to commit one way or the other. Because on paper, Happyish is a series that we are practically programmed to like, a mishmash of talented, beloved actors and popular, well-trodden television plots. It is a show, you could argue, that our tastes created: set at an advertising agency; a dark family/workplace comedy; a passable, but certainly not original, series-long rumination on aging; a reflection of the trials and tribulations of a moderately happy, moderately successful white man; and all interspersed with “funny” rants about Thomas Jefferson, God, and (of course) the woes and frustrations of technology. “Unfriend me,” lead character Thom Payne sarcastically says at one point, making viewers thankful we were never his friend in the first place.
The oh-so-cleverly named Thom Payne is played by Steve Coogan (replacing Philip Seymour Hoffman, who shot the original pilot prior to his death), a quietly fantastic British actor still looking for his breakout American role. This is not it. Equally wonderful Kathryn Hahn plays Thom’s wife, Lee. Their marriage is solid but not perfect; we know this because Happyish immediately deploys the trope that TV has deemed the Worst Thing That Can Ever Happen To A Couple: a crying child interrupts sex. (Has any set of middle-aged parents, in the history of television, managed to finish without child interruptus?) Bradley Whitford, Ellen Barkin, and Carrie Preston star, too, and each quickly makes a case for why they deserve better.
But again: It’s not fair to entirely write off the series, nor is it entirely accurate to dismiss Happyish simply as a bad show. It is not good or original, and at times it is barely watchable. The ranting soliloquies grow old by the end of the first one. The cutesy gimmick involving foul anthropomorphism (Thom talks to the Keebler elves, and then has sex with elderly Ma Elf; Lee fights with an angry Amazon package; the Geico Gecko spews expletive-laden tirades) is just grating. But the performances are top notch, and there are tiny seeds of promise sprinkled throughout. Happyish certainly has the potential to succeed at being something. The trouble is that the something it wants to be isn’t very interesting.
Maybe Happyish, like its characters, is a victim of chronic fatigue, exhausted by the boorish personalities of advertising executives, the frustration of being frustrated in your 30s and 40s, the exploration of what it truly means to be happy (or whether happiness even exists). It is hard to care about any of these characters or to connect with a man who’s upset because he decided to wear skinny jeans to fit in with his new, younger bosses or a woman fretting about what to do with a package from her mother (though I will say the episode in which Lee’s point of view takes precedence over Thom’s is markedly better than the other two sent to critics). The most impressive thing about Happyish is how it feels underwritten despite the fact that it’s also one of the most obnoxiously writerly series in recent history.
Created by novelist and memoirist Shalom Auslander, Happyish could easily have been a hefty novel featuring pages and pages of characters’ inner monologues. That novel could even, I think, have been a good one. On screen, however, it just looks like characters angrily yelling, cursing everything from God to Twitter. The problem isn’t so much that the rants are poorly written — on the contrary, some of Thom’s and Lee’s do offer insight (and Hahn, particularly, brings depth to them). They’re just too much: too long, too frequent, too angry, and too proud.
And therein lies the biggest issue with Happyish: It is too damn proud of itself. It is a smug little series, one that believes it is capital-I Important and pats itself on the back every chance it gets. It is so self-congratulatory that any critical praise would be redundant. Happyish mistakenly believes that it has brand-new things to say — things previous shows were too scared to utter, or viewers were just not yet ready to hear. But we were ready years ago. And we were bored then, too.