Mere seconds into the first episode, “Happy!” almost earns the exclamation point in its title. As Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni), a disgraced ex-cop with booze running through his veins, stares into a dirty barroom mirror, he pulls two pistols from his pockets and blows the back of his head off.
That’s a good thing — using the weird logic of the scene — considering how much blood was being kept at bay by the top of Sax’s skull. A flood of red sprays from his open cranium like water bursting from busted fire hydrant, and Sax’s joyfully exuberant reaction is mirrored by the new environment around him. As his innards paint the ceiling, a bunch of half-naked dancers twirl around the lobotomized cop to an electro-tinged version of “Jingle Bells.”
It is Christmas time, after all.
Whether or not Sax comes back to reality is a question viewers will answer for themselves as the pilot, and likely the whole first season, plays out. Is he dead? Is he alive? Is he crazy, or is he the only sane guy in this world? Ask all you like, but the answers aren’t all that important. “Happy!” isn’t a show to be taken super seriously so much as it’s meant to shock, entertain, provoke, and astound. Through two episodes, it manages to do enough of all four to warrant further examination, even if it still has to go farther if it wants to be as batshit fucking insane as its exclamation point — and animated flying unicorn — implies.
We’ll get back to the unicorn in a minute. Let’s start with Nick Sax. Sax used to be a cop, but a very public disgrace and a very personal crisis led him off the force and into a private gig. No, he’s not working security at the football stadium or chasing P.I. tips on two-timing dames. Sax is a professional hit man who loves the messy nature of his new work. (See co-star Patrick Fischler below.)
To start the series, he’s been contracted to take out a few mafia kids. There’s a backstory there involving more allusions to graphic violence and disturbing events, but what matters is how his interaction with the mob kids turns him into a man wanted by more than one suitor. Sax is on the run throughout the first two episodes, and there’s no sign he’ll ever slow down.
But all that mob stuff is really secondary to Nick’s real mission: With the help of a little girl’s imaginary friend, Sax is out to kill Santa Claus. No, really. All of “Happy!” takes place during the holiday season, and there’s an uber creepy middle-aged man dressed in jolly ol’ Saint Nick’s dilapidated threads who’s been taking children from their parents.
And that leads us to the title character, Happy. Voiced by Patton Oswalt, the flying blue horse — unicorn, really, given the horn on his head — is one kid’s imaginary friend who’s been sent out to find Sax and get him to help save everyone. And unlike the dour ex-cop, the winged miniature horse is innocent, positive, and relentlessly trying to help. The two form a cute, classic odd couple, and Happy certainly makes for a memorable partner.
The timing between Meloni and Oswalt hasn’t quite gelled yet, but both performers deliver impressive work on their own. Oswalt voices Happy in the delicate space between mocking and embracing G-rated Disney cartoons; the little horse is so innocent, so good, so sweet, that Oswalt’s turn has to embrace that purity while still consciously contrasting the depraved madness around him. He’s finding it consistently, while Meloni’s turn is equally self-aware. For all the hysterical teeth-gnashing and unbridled excitement, he finds moments to ground Sax in a way that doesn’t take him out of his element.
The fast pace certainly helps keep him there. Within less than an hour, there are mob thugs looking for Sax, cops looking for Sax, angry members of his past looking for Sax — and Sax is looking for quite a few things himself: drinks, drugs, a pot of coffee, the occasional defibrillation. He’ll take whatever he can get to keep going because Sax is like Liam Neeson on a train: He’s non-stop. Meloni plays him as tired, but not too tired; patient, but not too patient; strung-out, but– You get it. Meloni makes Sax into a charming madman, identifying with the elements dragging him down as much as the small spark of flame still fueling his well-hidden good heart.
In an attempt to match Sax’s unyielding pace, “Happy!” can often feel like its treading in cliche. The disgraced cop. The redemption arc. The empty threats and endless bullets. Without spoiling anything, the twist at premiere’s end would’ve done more harm than good if it weren’t for the pathos-filled look Meloni gives his informant. There’s even an unnecessary and misguided visual metaphor in Episode 2 because of it.
But that’s the cost of bedlam: It’s almost as though the need to knock the audience off-kilter with violence and gore necessitates an easily understandable narrative bedrock. For all the delightful tomfoolery, maybe audiences need to recognize a familiar archetype from time to time so they don’t feel lost.
Or so it feels in Patrick Macmanus and Brian Taylor’s adaptation of Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s graphic novel. At best, “Happy!” is flying toward something bigger than what it finds in these first two episodes; a point or a connection or an original conceit beyond the entertainingly over-the-top nature of its core story. At worst, it’s just throwing a bunch of blood at the wall and hoping the shock is what sticks. Either way, it will be fun to see how crazy the Syfy series can get before it blows its top.
“Happy” Season 1 premieres Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on Syfy.