I am never not surprised by how much I enjoy Happy Endings. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, that I’d come to expect this caliber of quality delivered by the show so consistently. But it’s not the mere fact that Happy Endings is great, nor how great it is. It’s the fact that it manages to be so great at accomplishing something that, these days, especially in the eye of cynical television critics like myself, all but demands mediocrity.
Happy Endings can and will be compared to the likes of Community, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development in the with and pacing of its comedy. But where such shows enjoy far-reaching concepts, complicated storylines, and formulas yet untested by the television medium, Happy Endings instead opts for a very different approach. In essence, the show is highly pre-postmodern. Anyone who’s seen a sitcom or two in his or her day won’t feel too unfamiliar with the storylines presented in this week’s Happy Endings:
One: Alex and Dave take ill-fated effort to recharge the romance in their relationship — a trope that has withstood the small screen comedy genre since the days of I Love Lucy.
After being prompted by self-proclaimed relationship everything expert Jane to take further steps in spicing up their routine, both Alex and Dave take some misguided steps to prove to one another how invested they are in bolstering the energy between them. Alex, attempting to seduce Dave with a playful house-painting scenario (are people into house-painting?), inadvertently flings a wad of toxic paint into his eyes. Later on, Dave tries to coax Alex to an evening in faux-Paris — an open air café set up in Jane’s backyard, made to resemble Alex’s second favorite travel destination (the first being Smurfland), but accidentally sends her rushing off to the airport… and getting apprehended by O’Hare security. The two end up sharing a tender moment while handcuffed in front of the Chicago airport, so all is hunky dory.
Two: Brad teams up with Max in a business partnership, only to outshine and inevitably stab his friend in the back in the name of glory and pride — another sitcom mainstay. This exact plotline, almost to a T, happened on a Season 5 episode of The Brady Bunch.
Max surprises and impresses his friends with his prowess as a Bar Mitzvah hype man, bringing his old pal Brad, a promising young squire in the art of B.M.H., in on the act… with one rule: only Max does the Human Dreidel dance move. But soon enough, Brad cannot resist the glory — he goes for the gold, and then sells out his friend after a prospective client wants to hire Brad alone to entertain at his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Full calamity is achieved when Max crashes the party, engaging in a ferocious battle of hype with Brad until both of them are ousted by the celebrated young man’s parents. Immediate reconciliation follows.
Three: Penny finds herself the unwitting object of a slew of 13-year-old Jewish boys’ sexual desires … okay, that story archetype is not as well-tread territory as the other two, but I’m sure it happened once on Diff’rent Strokes, or something.
From a distance, Happy Endings doesn’t seem to be setting up to impress. It consistently utilizes standard sitcom stories — with standard, self-contained sitcom conflicts and sitcom solutions — week after week, never really nudging the status quo, challenging its characters, or working toward any larger goals. In its most deliberate efforts, the show will call attention to and comically deconstruct the very tropes it is upholding, but usually from a platform that doesn’t greatly interfere with their playing out to completion. Happy Endings is fully aware of what it is, and is quite pleased with being just that: it’s a sitcom. A traditional sitcom. Of the sort that has earned scathing critique ever since TV became self-aware. Of the sort that would now, by your regular breed of cynical television critics, be considered a lazy grab at something far past its expiration date.
And this in mind, Happy Endings never ceases to shock. For, even as someone who prefers the biting, self-directed satire of shows like Community, 30 Rock, Arrested Development and so on to that of the casual comedies that occupy the majority of the airwaves without contributing much in the new, I find Happy Endings to be one of the most indelibly perfect programs running this season. In a world where the likes of the Three’s Company and Family Matters motifs no longer works, Happy Endings energetically suggests that they most certainly do. To reiterate, it’s a sitcom, cut from the mold of comedies from The Honeymooners to The Odd Couple to What’s Happening!! to Perfect Strangers to Full House to, perhaps most of all, Friends. And how exactly can the show get away with this in a time when the traditional sitcom is all but taboo to we uptight, elitist cynical television critics? Honestly, it’s just that funny.
[Photo Credit: ABC(2)]