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The Best TV You're Not Watching: 'Happy Endings'

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Sep 28, 2011 | 11:42am EDT

Happy EndingsHappy Endings aired as one of like, forty-five mid-season "relationship comedies" this past winter. The one thing to distinguish this series from the rest of the litter is that it's hilarious. Happy Endings follows a sextet of friends dealing with a strain on the group after Primary Female Friend Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) leaves Primary Male Friend Dave (Zachary Knighton) at the altar. The rest of the group, high-strung Jane (Eliza Coupe), easygoing Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.), sardonic Max (Adam Pally) and basket-case Penny (Casey Wilson), try and salvage the group while dealing with their own low-stakes romantic issues. It's a calm watch; nothing much seems to happen. But the material is enough to keep us more than satisfied.

Why You're Not Watching

You’ve Never Heard of It

You may be familiar with some of its castmembers: Jack Bauer's daughter, one of Scrubs' eighth-season interns, Damon Wayans' son. But there clearly isn't enough star power to get this show in the headlines. Despite their talent, none of the actors have that much "pull" yet to command viewers to a series (especially one that is tucked away to a Wednesday 10 p.m. spot). But now that you're reading this, this tribulation is conquered. It's called Happy Endings. It's on ABC. You no longer have this as an excuse.

It’s Exactly Like Friends, A Decade Later

One of the criticisms Happy Endings initially endured was that it was just another relationship sitcom among a bunch that debuted in the same season. Critics eventually came to understand it was much smarter and more original than its cohorts (Perfect Couples, Traffic Light). Still, it does have a pretty familiar formula. If you were a fan of Friends (as we all were), you might notice some similarities in the character descriptions:

The Leads: A pretty, somewhat spoiled blond who runs out on her wedding in the pilotA hapless, good-hearted schlub who is in love with her

Their Friends:

The intelligent, relationship-affixed high-maintenance and hyper-competitive control freakThe spirited, promiscuous, super-flaky girl who seems a bit out of place everywhereThe cynical, sarcastic guy whose homosexuality is frequently a topic of discussionThe dapper but goofy dude (this one is the biggest stretch, but five out of six ain’t bad)The Stakes are Lower than Low

The strain on the friendship group is admittedly not as big a focus as the show (or my introduction) advertises. If it were, the show would take a step up in quality. But as it is, the plots generally center on minor marital issues between Jane and Brad, one-off romances for Penny and Max, and Alex's and Dave's congenial steps to get over one another, and to help the other do the same. Not much carries over from episode to episode—but how on Earth can you really take issue with a TV show that referred to the movie Showgirls as Jesse Spano's Boobs

The Episodes Aired Out of Order

It's difficult to get attached to a story when you are exposed to it in non-chronological fragments. This formula only works if the story is about hit men, suitcases, and hamburgers. So Happy Endings got the short end of the stick when ABC aired its second episode, the one that was supposed to establish the primary conflict of the series (a group of friends having to deal with two members' recent breakup) as the last episode of the season. Because of this, it was hard to really anchor into what the characters were supposed to be feeling or thinking in any given episode.

What You're MissingHappy Endings

Honest Stereotype Deconstruction

There are two wrong ways to handle stereotypes in television: embrace them as if they are reality, and ignore them as if they don’t exist. Last season alone, I saw so many pilots that I couldn’t believe were doing the same old shtick: the most notable example came from Fox's Breaking In, which slathered Alphonso McAuley's character so heavily in "1990s Black Guy" stereotypes that I felt physically ill.

Happy Endings takes an interesting approach, specifically with the character Max. Max is openly gay and is often ridiculed by his friends for embodying none of the characteristics of the gay stereotype—Happy Endings does not simply carry on as if they're not "up to something." The show acknowledges that Max's love of football and his fleshy physique come across as odd to people (which is really saying more about the public conscious than it is about stereotypes, actually). Happy Endings devotes storylines to the dichotomy between the stereotype (represented by another gay man, Derrick, who is regarded by Max and the others as offensively flamboyant) and its antithesis (as represented by Max), assigning ridiculousness to both under the maxim that people should not and, realistically, cannot be defined by stereotypes in either direction.

Nuanced Acting

The show’s got a Bill Lawrence-y, Dan Harmon-y feel—and for those of you who have never seen Scrubs or Community, what I mean by that is there's a lot of humor being built organically onset. Canon characterization and running jokes seem like they're being built from the actors' ad libs. You can tell the creators are letting the stars influence their characters, which I’m always a fan of (especially when the actors are as comically adept as this cast is). Wilson plays Penny Hartz to relentless perfection, fluttering through sentences and shoving “amahzings” down everyone’s throats. Pally’s languid Max is so natural that you wonder just how much of the character is performance.

Banter

Banter is a modern comedy staple. Shows try and pass off their groups as friends by having them riff off one another, toss around idiosyncratic conversations, and share inside jokes. This is generally a hit-or-miss; a lot of shows come across as trying way too hard. But Happy Endings, more than any other positive quality it might have, is masterful when it comes to banter. One episode alone had an in-depth discussion about which of the six friends would best survive a zombie apocalypse (this discussion was actually the episode's B-Story) and Max relinquishing unto Penny an analytical catalog of everything that defines a hipster. To be fair, both these things were slightly too late to be timely, but nonetheless entertaining.

The Bottom Line

It'll make you laugh. Out loud. Regularly.

Happy Endings might still need to sort out its driving forces, but it is, above all, a hilarious, clever, well-written and incredibly affable sitcom. The characters are exceptionally fun to watch, because it seems like the show is exceptionally fun to write and perform. So for those of you who enjoy laughing, check out Happy Endings. It's nothing short of a-mah-zing.

Happy Endings premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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