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Showtime’s Smug ‘HAPPYish’ Is a Curmudgeon’s Defense of Society’s Most Sacred Cow

Showtime's Smug 'HAPPYish' Is a Curmudgeon's Defense of Society's Most Sacred Cow

In the spirit of “HAPPYish,” Showtime’s self-satisfied new satire of American culture, let’s skip the pleasantries. Our first sight of protagonist Thom Payne (Steve Coogan) is of his outstretched middle finger, a taunting “Fuck you!” to the viewer that more or less expresses the sour, pissing-contest bravado of the entire exercise: like Thomas Jefferson, “Mad Men,” brands, Jewish mothers, and teenagers, we’re easy targets for creator Shalom Auslander’s palpable rage against the machine of modern life, laid out in Thom’s opening monologue with all the subtlety of an eighth grader’s five-paragraph essay.

“What the fuck is happiness?” he asks, with an audible sneer. “A BMW? A thousand Facebook friends? A million Twitter followers?” It’s as if the Aaron Sorkin of HBO’s “The Newsroom” rode into Matthew Weiner’s artful drama on his high horse and stripped away all but the most irksome “kids these days” commonplaces.

READ MORE: “How the Best Episode of ‘The Newsroom’ Reveals the Series’ Fatal Flaws”

Wearing its erudition anything but lightly—the three episodes made available to critics, all written by Auslander and directed by Ken Kwapis, derive their titles from the series’ allusions to Beckett and Camus, Chagall and Hitler, Nabokov and God—”HAPPYish” positions itself as a comedy without sacred cows, but comes off as a curmudgeon’s defense of the most sacred cow of all: the middle-aged white male. Hemmed in by sexual anxieties, the terrors of marriage and fatherhood, and the techno-babble of the young bucks at work, Thom, a creative director at the advertising agency MGT, can muster only the most threadbare metaphor for what Hanna Rosin famously called “the end of men.” “That’s life,” he says to his wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), lamenting Prozac’s deleterious effect on his erections. “Happy and soft or miserable and hard.”

Were “HAPPYish” to use such inanities to submit Thom to the same scrutiny as “arrogant, know-nothing teenagers” and the other objects of its distaste, the vinegary humor might fly, but Coogan, who replaced the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, embraces neither Thom’s sad-sack haggardness nor his preening high dudgeon. Stuck in the middle of the road, he becomes the straight man against which Auslander tosses one fatuous stereotype after another: the strapping blond Swede (Nils Lawton) MGT hires to evolve the company “at the speed of ideas”; the aging account woman (Carrie Preston) chasing youth in a gray beanie and push-up bra; the prickish, alcoholic executive (Bradley Whitford) convinced that everyone and everything, Al Qaeda included, is a brand to be molded into market share. Only Ellen Barkin, as a headhunter named Dani, conjures up so much as a smile; with a sleek, blond haircut, thick-rimmed glasses, impeccable clothes, and a foul mouth, she’s a grand dame of old-school bitchiness, comfortably above the fray.

Certainly, satire requires room to press the issue—exaggeration is the sharpest knife in its drawer—but “HAPPYish” rejects the vulgar specificity of, say, “Veep” in favor of confident clichés, undermining its own colorful stabs at corporate newspeak. Whether in narcissist President Selina Meyer’s (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) reliance on personal aide Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), or in the vulnerability that cracks through the desperate ambition of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton on “Saturday Night Live,” skillful satire wields hyperbole to expose weakness in the powerful, rather than to eliminate nuance altogether.

By contrast, it’s telling that the most inventive aspect of “HAPPYish,” a series almost without human texture, is its use of animation. Embattled by suicidal Keebler elves, talking Amazon boxes, “Dora the Explorer” and a smart-alecky Geico gecko, Thom and Lee are commendably averse to late capitalism’s tortured conflation of who we are and what we buy.

READ MORE: “Now and Then: ‘Veep’ and Why We Need Satire Right Now”

In the end, “HAPPYish” fails because it displaces the better part of its well-deserved ire for the institutions of consumer culture onto the individuals unable to escape it. The series fattens up a series of golden gooses (advertising, the tech sector, corporate blather) and then cuts the throats of its characters instead. And so the series plods along, swinging its cock, as assured of its own importance as any op-ed columnist filing angry missives in lieu of arguments.

Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I’m too sensitive to the played-out portrait of “the selfie generation,” too inexperienced to find much of value about happiness and its discontents in the bitter, lazy humor of hard-ons and German porn. Even Auslander seems to sense the pitfalls of this miserly caricature, in which each episode cries “Get off my lawn!” without pausing to consider the fact that salable “youth culture,” and the pressure to participate therein, long predated the current century. “HAPPYish” sports self-awareness as a kind of armor, so forgive me for suggesting that the creator doth protest too much. “You were trying to be superior at the Funny Farm,” Lee chides a fellow parent, summarizing Showtime’s dreadful new comedy in the process. “It’s fucking pathetic.”

“HAPPYish” premieres Sunday, Apr. 26 at 9:30pm on Showtime.

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