You know what we need? More shows featuring a bunch of attractive twenty-somethings living, loving and laughing together. If I had made that statement before watching Happy Endings, you would have probably pegged me as a sarcastic prick (and you'd be right). Having watched it, I assure you that I am being utterly sincere. This is a funny and charming show that delivers laughs while making it all seem effortless.
Happy Endings joined ABC's schedule as a midseason replacement in April, 2011. The previews made it look like a hip, new update on the Friends formula that had worked so well for Ross, Rachel and the rest of the gang. Unfortunately this was also the biggest hurdle for the show since there had been plenty of Friends clones in the years since, most of which had gone down in flames. I recognized a few members of the cast (Elisha Cuthbert from 24, Casey Wilson from SNL, Eliza Coupe from Scrubs) but didn't have much hope overall. Thankfully, my negativity was sent packing after the first few establishing episodes gave way to a solid first season.
We first meet the central cast of characters in less than ideal circumstances. Dave (Zachary Knighton) has just been left at the altar by Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) who took off from the church with a rollerblading beau in tow (it's complicated). Watching all this go down are Dave and Alex's friends. There's Penny (Casey Wilson), Max (Adam Pally), Jane (Eliza Coupe) and Jane's husband Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.). To make matters stickier, our sextet has known each other for quite a while. Some of them have been friends since college, some since high school and some since birth (Alex and Jane are sisters). The fallout from Alex and Dave's shattered relationship could send everyone into a downward spiral of awkwardness. Fortunately, this isn't that kind of show.
Over the course of the first few episodes Dave and Alex come to terms with the fact that their friendship with the entire group is too valuable to throw away. This paves the way for the rest of the season as the gang goes about their general business of tomfoolery and assorted shenanigans. Their adventures are more grounded in reality than a show like Community (also excellent) but frequently dip into absurdity. Consider the episode where Penny starts dating a guy named Doug. Doug's a super duper nice guy. Doug's last name is Hitler. Penny's last name is Hartz. Now imagine that she's head over heels for this guy and is thinking of marriage and hyphenating her last name. You get the picture.
Although the show doesn't limit itself to the dating mishaps of our gang, it's undeniable that some of the funniest moments emerge from the wreckage of their ill-advised couplings. Penny, especially, turns out to be a magnet for chaos. She dates condescending hipsters, freeloading blowhards (a hilarious turn by Rob Huebel) and even an Italian guy with whom she can communicate only when she's blind drunk. Dave doesn't do much better. He gets over Alex by going out with a clingy girl who wants to be a backup dancer for Ke$ha and a lacrosse coach who insists on bringing instant replay into the bedroom. Even Brad and Jane get in on the action by going on a double-date with some new friends who may just want to take their relationship to another level...a level with fewer clothes.
We see a bit less of Max's dating life but that's only because he can't be bothered to put in the effort to seem appealing to strangers. He does however make a few exceptions along the way. One such case involves his love-hate relationship with the owner of a new coffee shop (played by Max Greenfield who lets his hetero flag fly in New Girl these days). Alex is the only one who remains single largely due to being guilt-ridden over what she did to Dave. Sure, there's the guy who sends over a rack of ribs at the bar but he doesn't count. She is destined to regret her mistake and pine for Dave in what will be this show's Will They or Won't They (Again) coupling.
As I said earlier, this show is about more than watching these characters be unlucky in love. It is also about them attempting to recover from normal, everyday occurrences that spiral out of control. There is an episode where Brad complains about his waiter not writing down his order (he remembers them "with a handy mnemonic of state capitals and Tobey Maguire movies"). Somehow this leads to the waiter losing his job, his lady friend and his apartment. It may seem ridiculous but watching Brad inadvertently connect the dots is half the fun. Elsewhere, Penny takes a Krav Maga class to bolster her self-confidence. Unfortunately, the uber-comptetive Jane joins in as well and shames Penny in the process. How this ends in Penny mastering the art of Jazz Kwon Do and the entire gang performing a Fosse number in their sweats is for you to discover.
As clever as the writing is (and it is very clever), the gang's hijinks would fall flat if the characters weren't individually interesting and if they weren't performed by talented and likable actors. While the entire ensemble does a great job, the early standouts are Casey Wilson and Adam Pally. Wilson bounces back from her (unfairly) short-lived SNL stint to present Penny Hartz as an enthusiastic, ball of energy. She has the perfect mixture of sass and wide-eyed innocence to remain believable in the midst of all the nutso situations she finds herself in. Pally leaves his mark by turning Max into a brash, sarcastic force of nature. Max may be gay but he falls way outside the stereotype that TV shows have foisted on us in the past. The writers position Max as a rude and butch slob with a bit of an attitude problem. Pally has fun with this character, defeating expectations at every turn.
Wayans Jr. and Coupe are consistently effective as the put-together yuppies of the group. They both have Type A personalities but Wayans Jr. elicits laughs with Brad's attempts at trying too hard to look laid-back and cool. Coupe just gives in and shows Jane in all of her compulsive control freak glory. Since Knighton and Cuthbert are the Ross and Rachel of the group, it's reassuring to see that they get real character moments beyond dancing around their feelings for each other. Knighton is quirky and a bit neurotic while Cuthbert spikes adorable with a touch of ditz. The show also delivers by featuring a number of cameos that comedy fans will recognize. Besides the folks I mentioned earlier (Huebel is so good), we get Nick Thune as one of Penny's ex-flames, Damon Wayans as Brad's dad (obvious but perfect casting), Paul Scheer as a sex-machine in possession of a tiny kimono and many others.
Show creator David Caspe has delivered something very special in his maiden voyage. He has made a show about friends where the characters genuinely feel like friends. That may sound like I'm setting the bar low, but all you have to do is survey all the misfires that have littered the TV landscape in recent years to see that the intangible spark of chemistry is the hardest thing to create. This feels like a joyous beginning for Happy Endings.
The show was presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The production employs a very natural look with locations that feel lived in and less stagey. The bright color palette never feels garish and the skin tones remain even throughout. With 13 episodes (and extras) spread across 2 discs, I was worried that I might see compression artifacts but didn't notice any. The image was clear and sharp throughout. There were a few instances of light moiré but nothing too bothersome. Altogether, this was a very good presentation for the show.
The audio was presented in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. I found the mix fairly lively, especially for a TV show. Small musical cues came through with clarity without overshadowing any of the dialogue. English SDH subtitles were available.
The extra features are spread across both discs of the release. Disc 1 gives us a pair of Banana Republic Style Previews for The Girls of Happy Endings (2:19) and The Guys of Happy Endings (2:09). These act as brief introductions to the look of the show as costume designer Keri Smith describes how she interprets the style of individual characters based on their personality types while making the transition from script to screen. This is followed by 7 Deleted Scenes (6:39) that give us plenty of small moments that were clearly edited out for time and not because they were lacking in laughs. Besides a great Sean Connery impression by Eliza Coupe, we get a few scenes setting up Alex's doubts before the wedding which help paint her in a less negative light. A fun set of Outtakes (4:13) close out this disc. If you've been dying to see Casey Wilson almost motorboat Elisha Cuthbert, then look no further.
Disc 2 kicks things off with a Mike Relm Remix (1:28). Relm is known for his clever audio / video mashups and that is what he gives us here. Numerous scenes from the show are put in a blender and transformed into a minute and a half of goofiness. This is followed by a Mark Douglas Interview with Adam Pally and Casey Wilson (5:03). I was excited to see this because it featured two of my favorite cast members but Douglas manages to make the entire segment all about himself. He asks a few awkward questions, plays a few songs on his guitar and tries to update the theme song for Friends to fit this show. I'm sure Pally and Wilson were in on the joke but it still feels like a wasted opportunity. Unable to leave well enough alone, Mark Douglas returns with a Parody Theme Song (1:18). This is an improvement over the preceding interview but not by much. We close things out with 6 more Deleted Scenes (5:17). Altogether this is a fairly disappointing slate of extras. Hopefully, next season will give us something better.
One of the characters in Happy Endings describes the rules for being a Hipster as: never trying, only liking things ironically and never showing enthusiasm. While I have always excelled at the first part, I am failing miserably at the second and third parts when it comes to this show. This is a funny show that features engaging characters worth spending time with. I'm so glad I'm not a hipster. Now if only I could work on that sarcastic prick label....Highly Recommended.