Showtime’s lineup has always featured some of the darkest themed comedies in the history of television, witness The Big C, Nurse Jackie and House of Lies. But few of them have the misfortune to have an actual tragedy hanging over them the way Happyish does.
In 2014, one of the greatest actors of any time period, Philip Seymour Hoffman signed with Showtime to his first major work for TV. They had already shot the Pilot with him, when he overdosed on heroin in March of that year. Rather than let the entire property wither on the vine, showrun Shalom Auschlander recast the series with British comic actor Steve Coogan as Thom Payne.
It’s impossible to know what the series would’ve been like had Hoffman lived; one of his greatest gifts as an actor was his ability to mine humanity out of some of the darkest themed ideas imaginable, and sometimes find laughter in it. But the sad fact of the matter is, with or without Hoffman, Happyish just isn’t that good. What makes this even sadder is the fact that there’s such a good cast here. In addition to Coogan, there’s Kathryn Hahn as Payne, equally despairing wife, Lee. Bradley Whitford as one of his bosses, and the extremely gifted Carrie Preston, Andre Royo and Ellen Barkin in key supporting roles.
Unfortunately, the series has nothing really great to do with them. Payne is a forty-four year old man living in Woodstock, with his artist wife and child. He works for an advertising firm, a job he clearly loathes (“I work for Satan” he tells us in the Pilot) and which has now had the unfortunate takeover by ‘the Swedes;, Gustav and Godfrey, two young titans who seem determined to use social media and who have a way of declaring advertising is dead in almost every scene. There are some interesting ideas here, but most of them are buried under the level of faux rage that Thom seems to go through every time he suffers any kind of setback, which is constantly. Unfortunately, Auschlander’s ideas of tearing down sacred cows include Thom doing something unspeakable to one of the Keebler Elves, and beating the shit out of the Geico gekko. Payne constantly tries to say that he is trying to search for happiness in a depressing world. But five episodes into the series neither he nor any of Auschlander’s other actors have come with anything cogent— or, more importantly, particularly amusing— to say about any of this. Yes, life is depressing!. We really do get it!
Nor is the depression centered around Thom. Lee is trying to have a world where she can work as an artist and raise her child. Unfortunately, she is involved in a very dark struggle with her mother for reasons the series refuses to enlighten us, and obnoxious preschoolers at her son’s day care. However, her ways of being rebellious just seem uninspired at best, and utterly insulting at the worst. I’m sure Auschlander thought he was being daring by having Lee constantly needle Holocaust survivors, but it just seems as in bad taste as anything else in the series.
At this point, the only actress who seems to be able to do anything with the material is Barkin. As a headhunter and friend of Thom, she is able to puncture a lot of the self-worship in this series as utter tosh. She is engaging and witty, but more often than not, she is doing a good job despite the script. Showtime has had a fair amount of success with these kinds of series, but they had either an engaging central character or an interesting premise at the heart of it. Happyish really doesn’t have, either. It’s possible that if Hoffman had lived, he could’ve found a way to rise above this material (he must have seen something in it to make it his first TV project). I’m sure Showtime thought they were doing something valuable by trying to keep this project alive despite the tragedy connected with it. I think they would’ve been better served by moving on.
My score: 2 stars.