Happyish is about a harried, earnest, vaguely depressed advertising agency copywriter: Don Draper yanked into the present and poured into the droopy body of Steve Coogan. A new sitcom premiering on Showtime Sunday night just as Mad Men is marching towards its exit from the same night, Happyish is both a conventional sitcom — that is, a half-hour stuffed with punchlines — and the sort of off-kilter project you’d expect a pay-cable channel to invest in. It features advertising mascots such as the Keebler elves and the Geico gecko brought to animated life, if only to insult Coogan’s Thom Payne.
Note the name, a play on Tom Paine, an 18th-century Founding Father and author of Common Sense (1776), a quality Thom Payne finds in short supply in the 21st century. Happyish has its Payne quote the Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” as a way to get at the contemporary version of it — more like life, indentured servitude to one’s job, and the pursuit of happy-ishness, a state of being in which one can never quite attain pure, unironic happiness.
So it is with the show. As created by writer and former ad-man Shalom Auslander, Happyish centers on Thom, his wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and various co-workers including tense people played by Bradley Whitford and Carrie Preston (Elsbeth Tascioni in another Sunday-night show, The Good Wife).
Thom is, like the rest of his colleagues, miserable about the cynical work he does, the crushing volume of that work, and in fear of the rapid changes in the economy that threaten his livelihood (in the premiere, his agency is taken over by a pair of young-ish, corporate-speak, Norwegian dunces).
Ken Kwapis, a director best known for his TV work on Malcolm in the Middle, The Office, and The Larry Sanders Show, keeps the show moving along, from one tense, depressed exchange to another. Happyish was conceived as vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it was re-tailored to fit Coogan after Hoffman’s death in 2014. Coogan is good in his role — his dour deadpan fits Thom’s inner mood, and he’s a convincing marital partner with the always-excellent Hahn. Theirs is a modern marriage you recognize from lives around you.
What you don’t recognize are the surreal fantasies Happyish slips into. The most startling thing about this show isn’t the frequent use of profanity including, in every episode made available to critics, commencing with a middle finger directed at the audience. No, the surprising thing is the way Happyish is able to use corporate mascots from companies like Keebler and Geico as figures who do and say vulgar things. Did Happyish need to get permission for their use, and if so, did the companies think they’d come off cool and hip by letting their brands be used in this way?
Happyish is, on one level, almost startlingly old-fashioned — or, at least, as old-fashioned as an early-period Woody Allen comedy. Where Woody used to have his screen persona quote men (always men) whose philosophies he admired, from Nietzsche to Marshall McLuhan, Auslander likes to have his characters quote Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov — it’s the middlebrow gesture of quoting highbrow thinkers, at a time when brows have been all but plucked from the face of culture. Auslander even puts Beckett, Nabokov, et al, in the opening credits of the episodes, as though they were full co-stars — it’s a joke that gets tiresome through repetition.
If I’ve left the impression that Happyish isn’t a laugh-fest, I’ve done my job. But the show is not without its pleasures. As I said, Coogan and Hahn have good chemistry, and there are some genuinely funny moments (none of which I can recall now). Ellen Barkin is exceedingly welcome any time she pops up briefly as Thom’s profane pal. I’m sure that the downbeat humor was seen by Showtime as a good match for Happyish’s companion, Nurse Jackie, but I’m not sure that the agony of the contemporary workplace is something people are going to tune in for on Sunday night, just before their own work-weeks begin.
Happyish airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Showtime.