With “Mad Men” ending, most of the culture’s focus has been on finding a dramatic replacement for the critically-acclaimed series. What show can fill the shoes of Matthew Weiner’s giant, game-changing epic? Last year, AMC rolled out “Turn” and “Halt and Catch Fire,” with the latter drawing many comparisons to the network’s golden boy, but it ultimately failed to live up to the impossible standard. And that’s just it: replacing “Mad Men” is an impossibility. Instead — and this is a polite version of how “Happyish” would put it — we should be moving on from “Mad Men,” to a new, modern take on not just advertising, but the pursuit of happiness itself.
Weiner’s four-time Emmy-winning drama may have sucked us in with its sleek period dress, effectively selling us on the lifestyle of these ad execs who drink all day and dine all night. But at its core, “Mad Men” was about each character’s search for the elusive satisfaction promised to them by the “American dream.” Roger, Joan, Don and more all proved themselves in the business world. They’d all been married, too, and had children. So why weren’t they happy? We still haven’t found out the answer to that question, but for anyone eager to move on from it, “Happyish” is here with a more assertive take on every American’s lifelong quest.
Meet Thom Payne. Thom, played by Steve Coogan, is a married father of one who works in advertising. He’s got a few rungs up on others in his office, but isn’t the top dog or even the hot hand. He’s just trying to do his job; a job he actively hates. After working for “the dark lord” for 20 years, Thom says, “Fuck ‘Mad Men.’ There’s nothing cool about advertising.” Instead of asking why he’s unhappy, he points out the source: his job, but more than that, it’s the culture that supports his job. It’s the people who think they understand that culture better than the rest of us (namely, young and inexperienced people). It’s the castrating struggle to work reason, loyalty and love into everyday life. If Don is looking for reasons to be unhappy, Thom has plenty.
For every way Thom isn’t like Don — he’s not suave, strikingly handsome or morally questionable, and he is loyal, loving and selfless — he’s also exactly like him, just with a modern twist. Aside from sharing the same overarching goal and working the same job, Thom is also brash, whiny and disruptive. He rejects ideas he doesn’t like and works under the theory his way of thinking is the only way that makes sense. In short, he’s kind of a dick (like Don), but a dick with a heart (unlike Don).
Whether audiences are ready for that is the real question. After nearly eight years with Don Draper, even a slightly kinder version of him could be a little much every week, especially if Thom’s search for happiness follows the same up-and-down path Don’s did (which was mostly down). After three episodes of “Happyish,” it seems “down” is a near-permanent state for the Payne family. (Get it? They’re always in “pain.”) Each episode opens with either Thom or his wife Lee (the great Kathryn Hahn) telling someone or something to fuck off. It’s Thomas Jefferson in the pilot, Carol Brady in Episode 2 and God in the final press screener provided. From there, we witness their day-to-day struggle to protect their “bubble,” as they call their home and source of happiness.
For a half-hour comedy, “Happyish” doesn’t leave the audience rolling in the aisles. It reads as either exhausting or invigorating — depending on your state of mind when viewing it — because Shalom Auslander’s series features two competing ideologies: Pessimists square off against optimists, first within Thom and Lee, as their stark self-awareness continuously clashes with their need for hope, and then as an audience either willing or not to dive into the family’s dark world. Laughs may come, but they’re often overshadowed by the looming presence of life itself.
What’s surprising, given all that, is how well “Happyish” works. As rare as its humor can be, it bites with every appearance. Moreover, it’s a show that challenges its viewer every step of the way and isn’t afraid to make big, bold declarative statements (much like “Mad Men”). It’s a comedy that rejects the attached expectations while still meeting all the requirements. In short, it’s the TV version of Thom himself.
One of Auslander’s many jobs is a contributor to This American Life — the weekly public radio show out of Chicago and No. 1 national podcast on iTunes — and each episode of “Happyish” feels a lot like a version of that show. Despite its clear narrative through lines, the Paynes’ story is enlivened by a new framing device each week — the aforementioned middle finger to who or whatever. If you can buy into the oppositional mentality, there’s perspective to be gleaned from Thom’s rants about poisonous consumerism and Lee’s skeptical nature reflected through parenting. How long those topics can stay fresh is questionable, but so far they’re as crisp as can be, in part, because Thom and Lee are still willing to fight for their “bubble.” And they have hope in the form of their child, Julius, a uniting inspiration for us all.
The only unshakably rotten feeling in the series comes from no fault of its own. “Happyish” was first headlined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it’s hard not to imagine him in Thom’s shoes. Coogan does a fine job, but the role almost feels too well-suited to the man who so often plays a crabby asshole (“Philomena,” “Our Idiot Brother,” “Tropic Thunder”). Thinking of Hoffman delivering his lines gives them more credence, even if the delivery isn’t altered at all. It’s hardly a slight against the existing product, as it’s disappointingly fitting how angry one could become when thinking of another exciting opportunity lost to drugs, depression and society as a whole. Thom Payne would be as mad as anyone.