Watching “Happyish” is like trying to argue with an insane person: No matter how many times you try to present your opinion calmly and clearly, “Happyish” is too busy kicking, screaming and forcing its opinion down your throat to hear what you’re saying. “Happyish” wants to be a show that talks seriously about the meaning of happiness in contemporary society, but it refuses to consider any viewpoint that doesn’t border on nihilism.
“Happyish” attempts to blend cynicism and joy into a state of paradoxical coexistence. Thom Payne (Steve Coogan) may have a loving family and a beautiful home, but he isn’t truly content with his life. He seems to live in constant dissatisfaction. In the first few minutes of the pilot, he skewers Thomas Jefferson for not being honest about “the pursuit of happiness.” “What is happiness? A BMW? A thousand Facebook friends? A million twitter followers?” Thom’s life takes a turn for the worse, when, following his 44th birthday, a new boss takes over his advertisement firm, making him feel decrepit and outdated. From then on, Thom lives in constant fear of being replaced and is depressed by his overwhelming insignificance. In turn, he is forced to find new ways to be content and, for a pessimist like Thom, the task is most definitely not effortless.
In its first 10 minutes, “Happyish” asserts itself as a very talkative show. Characters on like to talk, curse, and feverishly share their feelings with one another. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, however, all this chatter never evolves into anything exciting or controversial. Dialogue usually devolves into diatribes against young people and the state of modern culture. Consequently, it becomes rather difficult to distinguish one character from another, in that everyone just seems to be talk about the same things. It’s as though the main character of “Happyish” is its only character: a foul-mouthed, insufferable, irascible wretch.
In its attempt to talk about the meaning of happiness, “Happyish” gets caught in the web of its own cynicism. Cynicism and comedy are not incompatible, but the cynicism in “Happyish” is usually delivered with rage, not grace or humor. In one scene, when Thom talks to his friend Jonathan (Bradley Whitford) about the world of advertising, Jonathan remarks, “Everything’s a brand, Thom. I’m a brand; you’re a brand. God’s a brand. And a brand in trouble.” Except for a few rare moments, the cynicism is not funny or compelling, just overbearing. In many ways, “Happyish” just feels like a lazy excuse for the show’s writers to vent their anger and insecurity.
“Happyish” says it wants to understand the pursuit of happiness, yet, deep down, the show just enjoys being miserable.
Contact Marty Semilla at msemilla ‘at’ stanford.edu