Christopher Meloni dies twice in the first 20 minutes of Happy! and he’s the show’s hero. Though hero is a strong word, and he’s never quite dead. When we meet Meloni’s Nick Sax, he points a couple guns at his head and pulls a couple triggers. Suddenly he’s at a dance party, blood cascading out of his skull like a fountain. It’s a dream sequence, or a druggy hallucination; this isn’t a series that gets bogged down in specifics. A few hours, four murdered gangsters, and one heart attack later, Nick wakes up in an ambulance and sees a tiny flying blue unicorn named Happy. The adorable animal sings him a song. Nick pulls a gun on a paramedic, demanding morphine. Did I mention it’s almost Christmas?
Nick’s a former cop, a current hitman, a piece of human wreckage. It’s as if every grim-faced tough guy from a Frank Miller comic book got poured into a bathtub full of Everclear and lit on fire. Assigned to kill gangster brothers, he winds up targeted by every criminal in New York City. And there’s Happy, voiced by Patton Oswalt. Happy’s an imaginary friend, but the little girl he loves has been kidnapped by a madman dressed like Santa. He needs Nick’s help. And Nick needs to survive long enough to get another drink.
The pilot episode is directed by Brian Taylor, who made the Crank movies with Mark Neveldine. If you’re a Crank fan — guilty, God help me! — you’ll recognize the kaleidoscopic action and frat-boy humor taken to quirky extremes. You’d think the concept of this show would be: “What if a cartoon character landed in a violent cop drama?” But Nick’s already kind of a cartoon character, and Meloni gives him a manic stumblebum grace. “We need guns and money,” he tells Happy. Add “lawyers” and it’s a Warren Zevon track, and the best parts of Happy! suggest the tone of Zevon’s funniest songs, which were also invariably his darkest.
But, um, there’s a unicorn! Oswalt gives Happy a sweetness edging into lunacy, and there’s a dark possibility that we’re witnessing this poor creature’s corruption. (Stuff gets snorted.) Consider Happy! an unexpected stocking stuffer. To quote Home Alone 2, another yuletide tale about a heroic psychopath torturing bad guys in New York City: Merry Christmas, you filthy animal. B+