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Happyish: Season 1
As much as I admired the craftsmanship and narrative complexity on display, Mad Men never sat well with me and gradually frustrated me more and more until I had to quit watching it halfway through the series' run. I think what bugged me the most was the show's blatant hypocrisy, put on as an attempt to bag as many audiences with as many different sociopolitical views as possible.
The show was obviously critical of the emotionally and ethically vapid lives of the characters, but also reveled in the nostalgia of bygone days when white men ruled the world. It perpetuated the shameless Bond-style male wish fulfillment of a superman in Don Draper, who always won his battles at the end the end of each episode and aggressively convinced pretty much every attractive woman in the show to sleep with him. Don't get me wrong, being Bond is fine, but Mad Men wasn't supposed to be Bond.
Thankfully, for audiences like me who were never big fans of Mad Men, comes Happyish as a form of antidote. Hell, the show practically opens with the protagonist's voice-over proudly exclaiming, "F--k Mad Men". The voice-over belongs to Thom Payne (Steve Coogan), an adman whose newly minted foray into midlife comes with full-blown disillusionment in modern America, where everyone is forced to worship youth and find happiness through consumerism. The fact that Thom knows that he helped create the illusion of the self-obsessed contemporary American dream makes his midlife crisis that much worse, as he tries to find a semblance of truth in his life while continuing to sell convenient lies to keep the public docile.
Created by Shalom Auslander, Happyish is brutal social satire of the finest kind, one that doesn't pull any punches as it exposes pretty much every character as displaying a major personality flaw. Thom hates his job and can't stand what he does, but lacks the backbone to do anything about it. His wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), a hopelessly neurotic artist, is drowning in the negativity and aggressiveness that was handed down by her estranged mother. His boss, Jonathan (Bradley Whitford), looks at his workplace as a cesspool of pimps and whores, leading him to become perhaps the most cynical person in New York City, which is saying a lot.
As Thom's ad agency brings in a couple of young Swedish admen to bring more youth and "grit" to their clients, Thom becomes more and more confused about his place in life, and whether or not he's even relevant anymore. The Millennial employees at the firm believe that their peers are disillusioned by the promise of happiness that was handed down from previous generations, and are only interested in grit and misery. For the first time in his life, Thom is asked to market sadness to the narcissistic young people he despises. This desperate attempt at "misery advertising" results in hilarious sub-plots like changing the Keebler Elves from bubbly animated characters into cinema-verite style docudrama in order to sell cookies to sad teenagers.
Happyish is not the kind of serialized premium cable show where audiences are expected to stay glued to their screens in order to find out what will happen to their favorite characters as the season carries on. The simple plot elements, where lack of convenient dramatic change within characters' lives is kind of the point, take a back seat to a bevy of ideas and character traits that focus on the futility of Thomas Jefferson's famous pursuit of happiness. The show utilizes a lot of fantasy sequences, showing characters daydreaming about their day-to-day struggles.
Yet instead of a cutesy Ally McBeal-type approach, the fantasy sequences are expertly used in order to accentuate the hypocrisy that the characters are constantly surrounded by, a frustrated state of mind that they might not always be able to articulate to their surroundings. These smart sequences begin with a brilliant Annie Hall-style sequence where Thom manages to make a six-pack fitness bro admit that he works out so much because he hates himself. Boy, if life were only like this! From then on, we get an Amazon shipping box that turns into a passive-aggressive Jewish mother, as well as the most demented episode of Dora the Explorer you'll ever see.
I don't understand why Showtime won't release Happyish on Blu-ray, since it showcases a brilliant use of various visual styles, thanks to the dream sequences. That being said, the DVD is nearly perfect for an SD transfer. The video looked near HD quality while upconverted on my 55" screen, the colors and contrast are great, and I couldn't find any obvious video noise, which is a miracle for the format.
The lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track is subtle and gets the job done as far as a TV comedy series is concerned. The punk version of "If You're Happy and You Know It" that opens every episode does give one a significant rush though the front speakers. Be warned that even though closed captions are advertised, the discs don't come with any English subtitles. You can turn on closed captions only if your TV has its own closed caption capability.
We get nothing. The DVD set comes with a voucher for Ultraviolet digital copy.
The great Philip Seymour Hoffmann was set to play Coogan's character before his tragic death. He even filmed the pilot, which is thankfully missing from this DVD. Knowing his talent for playing angry, repressed family men, I know that he would have knocked this role out of the park. However, I also can't think of a more apt replacement than Coogan, who specializes in creating spineless hypocrites. Dry, angry, and uncomfortably honest, Happyish will not please everyone, and that's what makes it brilliant satire.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com