Back when I was in elementary school, a new student joined my class and promptly started beating the shit out of me. For obvious reasons, my opinion of him was not too high, and I expressed my dissatisfaction over the situation with my parents, who suggested that I attempt to befriend him. I’m not sure how great this advice was, considering that the vast majority of the time, the people stealing your lunch money have little interest in procuring your friendship. But I was young and stupid at the time, so I took their advice without question. And surprisingly enough, it worked. We stopped trading punches (a deal he always got the better of) and started trading baseball cards (which played much more to my strengths). Eventually though he moved away, and we only saw each other twice a year at one another’s birthday parties. The last time I saw him was a couple weeks after my ninth (tenth? eleventh? The memory is fuzzy. I’m not really sure. I do remember he gave me some sort of toy truck. But that may have been years earlier.) birthday party, when he invited me over to his home, and I saw the possible reason why he felt like he had to act so tough around the other kids. It was the first time I’d ever really seen poverty or understood the concept of a broken family. We quite literally played in a junkyard out behind his apartment building, complete with piles of old tires and broken mirrors. His mother sucked down cigarettes on the porch as we ate macaroni and cheese out of styrofoam bowls. And then I went back to my blue-collar, middle-class home and never saw him again.
Happy Endings is turning out to a be a bit like that childhood friend. When it premiered, the show specialized in punching its audience in the face and stealing its time. The first two episodes were brutally bad. I started writing a review of those episodes that I never got around to finishing, but it began like this:
Happy Endings is terrible. Terrible. Just terrible.
There were two major problems with those first two episodes. The first was simply that the writing was bad and the jokes weren’t funny. That sounds glib, but, honestly, the writing was bad and the jokes weren’t funny. In the pilot, for example, there were two funny moments. The first was a scene in which Casey Wilson’s Penny threatened to “physically fight” a woman in the gym, and it was mostly funny because of Wilson’s delivery. The network was clearly aware that this was the episode’s funniest scene too, as it was the centerpiece of every single promo they ran. The other funny gag was the club girl’s “Stay Grounded” tramp stamp, which she said reminded her to “stay grounded.” There was nothing else even worthy of a chuckle, and as those two examples indicate, the show was very, very broad.
But it seems even clearer now than it was then (and it was already fairly clear then) that the real problem–the problem that most likely led to the poor writing and extreme broadness–was the premise, which involved Elisha Cuthbert’s Alex leaving Zachary Knighton’s Dave at the altar. The execution of this plot point was the worst thing about the pilot, which opened with Alex’s former boyfriend interrupting the wedding ceremony on rollerblades and convincing her to run off to some tropical paradise. When Alex returned two weeks later, Dave had already moved on to banging club girls with tramp stamps. From that point, there was just a lot of shouting and general unpleasantness. The pilot ended with Dave explaining that he still despises Alex with every fiber of his being, but by golly he’s in a sitcom about a group of these people hanging out together, so he’s stuck with her.
This premise of a particular family of sitcoms that focus on sets of couples at different stages of their relationship. This sictom genre has become extremely popular with with network executives over the last year, if not with viewers. Though not technically part of a the genre, I feel confident that the success of How I Met Your Mother is to blame, premised as it is on relationship-building. It’s possible, of course, to trace the source back further and lay the blame at the feet of Friends, as all of these shows are at heart about groups of attractive twenty-somethings hanging out. They just come with built-in relationship drama and are thus able to avoid the hard work of developing relationships organically over the course of the show.
None of these shows have been particularly good or successful. Perfect Couples and Better With You both started off inauspiciously but have grown into competence; neither are likely to be picked up for next year, however. I haven’t seen Mad Love, but it is by all accounts terrible and doomed. I find Traffic Light completely unwatchable, though I know that some people like it. Regardless of its quality, it too is destined for cancellation. Only the unkillable Rules of Engagement–the grandfather of the genre–has found any degree of commercial success, if you can call being useful to its network as cheap filler “commercial success.” Moreover, Rules of Engagement is a terrible show, easily one of my least favorite on television. If it were just a little worse and had even been even moderately popular, people would be referring to it as the new According to Jim. As it is, it’s just a rung above ‘Til Death‘s legacy: the sort of show that most people don’t even realize exists, but has somehow managed to survive for a nearly 100 episodes. Why executives keep greenlighting these sitcoms, I don’t know, but I fully expect that every new show next year will be about various sets of couples. It’s like a speculative bubble at this point.
And because of that terrible premise, I was all ready to call Happy Endings the worst of this sorry lot. The thing about premises, though, is that they can almost always be changed. And Happy Endings’ premise in particular was the sort that could be discarded without anybody really even noticing. All it really accomplished was to set up some tension in the early going. (It overshot that goal by quite a bit, actually.) The show could run for ten more years and never mention the premise again, and it’s unlikely anyone would care.
And much to the show’s credit, it’s recognized the problem very quickly and almost immediately shunted it to the background. Whereas in the first two episodes, the focus was squarely on Alex and Dave (who also have the misfortune of being the least interesting characters), later episodes have shunted them to the side and spent a lot more time with the excellent, much funnier supporting (originally supporting, anyway) cast. “Of Mice and Jazz-Kwon-Do,” for example, put Alex and Dave off in an inconsequential plot by themselves, while Eliza Coupe’s Jane fake-murdered Penny in increasingly funny ways in a self-defense class and Adam Pally’s Max accused Damon Wayons Jr.’s Brad of gaycism. Pally and Wilson are the standouts here, and were even in the pilot, when their performances were energetic enough to almost carry even terrible material. “Of Mice and Jazz-Kwon-Do” also brought Coupe’s particular brand of tough-girl humor to the fore, finally; Coupe has been stealing scenes in various shows for a while now (she was easily the best thing about Scrubs‘ rebooted ninth season, for instance) so it was odd and disconcerting that Happy Endings had somehow managed to squander her early on. Even Cuthbert and Knighton are perfectly serviceable in the presence of funnier cast members. The tag, in which the whole gang gets together for some jazz-kwon-do, really highlights the chemistry they’ve developed impressively quickly.
Unfortunately, now that Happy Endings and I have developed a rapport, it’s become clear that ABC has little intention of renewing it, despite generally positive post-pilot reviews. The network has dumped it in a terrible timeslot and appears to burning off episodes two at a time. Its ratings have consequently been, at the very least, inconsistent. All of which would seem to suggest that I’m no more likely to see a second season of Happy Endings than I am to see that old childhood friend again.
- Cory Barker made the case for renewing Happy Endings last week. It would be nice, but I’m not holding out much hope.
- Really, when Eliza Coupe is only the third best thing about your show, you have quite a bit of potential on your hands. Pally and Wilson have really been terrific.
- I understated Better With You’s chances for renewal in the post proper. I’d give it decent odds, actually. 60-40 maybe.
- On the other hand, you should probably ignore every half-hearted attempt at prognostication in this post anyway. I’m terrible at that sort of thing.
UPDATE: Happy Endings was, in fact, renewed. Better With You, meanwhile, was canceled. I will never prognosticate again.