June 29, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Happyish”


It’s not as though HAPPYISH creator Shalom Auslander is unaware that many would consider his protagonists Thom and Lee Payne (Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn) to be whiny, tiresome, self-important narcissists–he has plenty of other characters tell them that’s exactly what they are through the course of the series.  Watching the show, though, it’s clear that Auslander considers them, for all their flaws and inadequacies, to be morally superior to those around them–truthtellers, in a world that hides and distracts itself from reality.  One’s ability to tolerate Happyish pretty much depends on how much one agrees with that point of view.

Considering how self-aware Auslander is, it’s interesting to wonder whether the decision to devote his season finale to the hoariest of sitcom cliches was a reflection of some meta-statement on the lazy plotting of situation comedy and the nature of televised art, or if it means he’s just as much a hack as any of the professional TV writers he probably disdains.  In any case, here we were in the finale, and it turned out to be the one about the hapless guy who decides to quit his miserable job on exactly the same day that his wife discovers she’s pregnant with an unplanned baby.  If there were only a live studio audience, it would howl all the way to the commercial break.

Of course, this being Happyish, the half-hour was dressed up with a black-and-white enactment of the short story Thom had written, a piece of pretentious juvenilia about a lecturer on the preeminence of science and logic who suddenly believes in faith after he finds a shitstain on his underwear that looks like Jesus, only to end up being beaten half to death by a priest and a cop after the stain has washed away, as they chant “Your shit has no meaning!”.  Here, once again, it was difficult to tell whether Auslander considered Thom’s regard for his work to be deluded or inspired.  There was also one more slap at Thom’s youthful bosses Gottfrid (Nils Lawton) and Gustaf (Tobias Segal), who were never anything more than the embodiment of Auslander’s contempt for youth and the business world, which he seems to consider interchangeable as menaces.  (That his moral judgment came in the context of a story about an ad agency was an irony; even Mad Men didn’t look to Madison Avenue’s past with such nostalgia.)

Just about everyone involved with Happyish is tremendously talented, and that includes Auslander, who certainly has his own creative, if utterly annoying, voice.  Coogan had the terrible challenge of following Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Thom after Hoffman’s untimely death, and although Coogan has superb comic timing and projects intelligence, the smugness that he brings to his acting just accentuated the worst aspects of Auslander’s writing.  Hahn was much more able to suggest a living human being behind all her character’s posturing about art, the Holocaust, and whatever other subject Auslander deemed worthy of a rant that week.  The supporting cast included Bradley Whitford, Carrie Preston, Molly Price, Ellen Barkin and Andre Royo, and several episodes, including the pilot and finale, were directed by Ken Kwapis.  All their work, though, was subject to the vision of its creator

The ratings for Happyish have been lousy, and it hasn’t gotten the kind of reviews suggesting that Emmy nominations are on the way, but Showtime isn’t in the eyeball business, it’s in the subscription business, and the network could yet decide that the prestige factor of the series makes a renewal viable.  A second season would likely be much the same as the first, the accent much more on ish than happy.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."