While this week's episode of Happy Endings is, admittedly, a little light in the laugh department — they can't all be perfect half-hours of comedic television — but it does have some pretty interesting things to say about the Chicago-based group and its codependent members, specifically Max and Penny. We have a basic understanding of Dave, Alex, Jane, and Penny's friendship: they grew up together, dating back long prior to high school, and never severed ties. If you yourself have been fated with a childhood clique that survived past college graduation, you know that there's almost zero chance of ridding yourself of said social cyst.
With said back story, Happy Endings risks falling into a territory of "passionless" relationships. People sticking together just because they're used to each other. Just because, thinking beyond the confines of their fictional universe, they happen to be the stars of this show. The presentation of these people as actual friends who contribute something to one another's lives (be the relationships healthy or otherwise) is as such challenging, especially in the medium of comedy, where character examination often takes a backseat to jokes. But Happy Endings makes the two work hand-in-hand, explaining why exactly (in this instance) Max and Penny need each other — specifically each other, as nobody else could fill the role they mutually provide — via delivery of humor.
Max is overwhelmed with jealousy and insecurity when Penny's relationship with Pete (still Nick Zano) turns him into the group's fifth wheel. While the motif of only-single-guy has been played with in sitcoms before, there is something special about the way Happy Endings deals with it. In the opening tag, Max is shoved off the overcrowded barstaurant booth, laughed at uproariously by the mean-spirited (but so silly that you can't really hate them too much) collection of couples that make up his social circle. As the gang (a highly vociferous Brad at the head of the antic) mocks Max for his solitude, it is at once very funny and genuinely, bitingly sad, thanks entirely to a perfectly subtle delivery of pain by Max's Adam Pally.
Throughout the episode, Max focuses his energy on Penny, and her relationship with Pete. See, Penny is Max's emotional crutch, and not simply because she's the only other perpetually single (with Pete as an exception) individual in the group. She, like Max, is an emotional cripple, unable to hold healthy relationships, doused in her own self-loathing, constantly waging a highly comical war against the world. Max and Penny are fellow soldiers in said war, banding together against the turmoil that comes more often than not from within each of them. And although they can be seen as one another's enablers, they provide what everybody on this Earth needs and searches for: someone who gets them. Someone in the same boat. A soul mate of sorts.
But Penny is involved in a happy, healthy relationship with Pete, which loses Max his co-passenger. As such, he finds a "new Penny," a psychologically destitute young woman named Nickel (Kulap Vilaysack... and "it's pronounced Nicole") to fill his void of a needy, self-destructive friend, and to make Penny jealous. The short-lived plan goes awry when Max is abandoned by the nutty lass, but Max's wishes come true when Penny, in Penny form, inadvertently sabotages her own relationship with Pete: he happens upon a list of his faults that Penny wrote up, as she does with all suitors as a preparatory means of making herself feel better once their relationships end. But seeing how genuinely devastated she is over the breakup, Max employs his truculent nature to force Pete into giving Penny another chance, allowing for a happy ending (hey! That's the name of the show!) for Penny, and a bittersweet conclusion for Max.
This latest examination of the pair's relationship proves how much merit there exists within and between these characters. Max and Penny don't have the relationship you'd find between Monica and Rachel or Joey and Chandler (or Ross and Phoebe... were they friends? Did they ever do anything together?). Their friendship is often toxic and disruptive, but this is what makes it interesting and, sadly, realistic. The most important people in our lives are usually the ones who do the most damage. But as is Max with Penny, it's the ones who opt to prevent or rectify this damage whenever they can that makes these people worth said importance.
On the other side of the game, we have the final holdouts in the lineage circuit: we meet Alex and Jane's parents, played by Christopher MacDonald and Julie Hagerty. The "I've got to impress my dad/father-in-law!" shpiel, a sitcom favorite, is ordained for this episode, but played with strikingly low stakes: Jane, charged with making speeches at every one of her father's annual galas, wants this one to be funny as opposed to her usual heartfelt. There is clearly no lapse of love between Jane and her straight-faced father, she's just on a constant drive to prove herself the best at everything. And Brad is on the same journey, hoping to warm up to Mr. Kerkovich... even though it doesn't really seem like there's that great a distance between them. Brad makes claims of his own extended family's detest for Jane due to her race, but the only issue facing Brad and Mr. K is that they aren't good at making party small talk.
Meanwhile, Dave shows up to the party, uninvited, to reestablish himself in the Kerkovich family, not knowing that Alex has avoided telling her family that the two are dating again. But once more, the stakes are low. It is Alex who Mr. Kerkovich is angry at over the runaway bride situation that led to the pair's breakup (she did do the running away), not Dave. In fact, Mr. Kerkovich openly admits to always having liked Dave, and (once the cat is out of the bag) to be happy to have him back in the clan. Meanwhile, Julie Hagerty teaches her daughter how to appropriately handle a buffet. So, in direct opposition to every other parental situation we've seen thus far (Max's difficulty telling his parents that he's gay; Dave and Penny dealing with their parents dating; Brad's inability to connect with his father emotionally), the Kerkoviches seem like they're living on easy street. So how did both daughters end up so nuts?
[Photo Credit: Carol Kaelson/ABC (2)]
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