Idiot Box: “Happy Endings” Isn’t A Fairytale But Still Enchants
Nowadays it’s common practice for most people to look down upon the sitcom. Seen as derivative and tired by most, situational comedies have certainly fallen from popularity and been replaced by police procedurals and complicated conspiracy programs as the core of the American television experience. For me, one of the most dreaded variants of the sitcom; and one that has remained somewhat popular in recent years (maybe the one which leaps most readily to mind when one hears the term “sitcom” at all), is what one could call the yuppie-com: shows organized around a core group of attractive 20-something year olds living in an urban hub in what the audience is supposed to think is a loft or some other mediocre apartment but is in fact out of half the audience’s price range. It began with “Friends” (a show I, admittedly, never loved) and grew from there.
As a result of these prejudices, which I hold inappropriately dear, I was not especially excited when a friend recommended that I watch ABC’s “Happy Endings,” a sitcom based around a group of six friends living in Chicago, which premiered in April 2011 as a mid-season replacement program and recently finished its second season. The show follows the exploits and interactions of its six leads, tracking daily occurrences and wacky adventures, beginning with the failure of two of the characters’ wedding (Dave Rose and Alex Kerkovich).
So far, the show sounds like it operates on many of the same principles of every other sitcom. In many ways, that is absolutely the case. At the same time, however, “Happy Endings” consistently reaches above and beyond the confines of its genre, with both a keen cultural awareness and respect for its characters that few shows of its kind can lay claim to.
The core cast is incredibly diverse and engaging—each character exists outside of known sitcom archetypes and functions not on generic principles, but rather on a human (if wacky) logic, which allow even the most outlandish situations to come through as emotionally believable. First off there are Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), the aforementioned couple. In the very first episode of the show, Alex leaves Dave at the altar to run off with an ex, returning to find her friend group in utter turmoil over her betrayal. While at the beginning of the show it seemed as though these two would be the “main characters,” the program has evolved to create a much more equalized dynamic, refusing to privilege any one character in the grand scheme of the show.
Also in the show’s main grouping is Alex’s older sister Jane (Eliza Coupe), a neurotic control-freak and ultra-competitive perfectionist, who both indulges and diffuses the stereotype she embodies. She is married to Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), who is also close friends with Dave. Brad works at an investment firm and carries some of the show’s funniest moments. Equally wacky and refined, his character demonstrates the writers’ ability to balance oddball humor and emotional resonance with equal panache. Alex and Jane are friends with Penny (Casey Wilson), the show’s manic parody of the stereotypical “desperate single friend.” Rounding out the clique is the show’s breakout character, Max Blum (Adam Pally), Dave and Brad’s sarcastic, somewhat slobbish, and openly gay best friend. In my opinion, Max may be the single most progressive representation of a gay man on television today, embodying none of the stereotypes that even shows like “Glee” and “Modern Family” indulge. Max’s sexuality is never the focus of any of the jokes, and when it does play into the show’s humor, it does so obliquely, acting as a means by which the show can comment on the ridiculousness of the assumptions many shows make with gay and lesbian characters.
Each member of the cast does an incredible job fleshing out their character and enlivening what could at any time be quickly transformed into an exercise in repetition. Rather than fall into stereotypes, they bring unique and energetic performances to every episode.
Whereas many sitcoms choose to fall back on repetitive or reductive humor, “Happy Endings” populates each episode with playful, intelligent, and culturally aware banter, creating a brand of humor that, in its reliance on character and conversation, allows the viewer to become more engaged in the show’s dynamic. Speckled with recognizable and obscure pop-culture references, cutting situational observation, and a general feel-good attitude, “Happy Endings” remains light and fast-paced, never self-important or overly righteous, and always lively.
The show doesn’t pretend to be a biting satire or illustrious social commentary. Rather, it chooses to represent what it really means to be young and in the city. Whereas shows like “How I Met Your Mother” focus on dating scenes and self-important searches for love, “Happy Endings” is determined to remind its viewers that, for the most part, that’s not what we’re doing. A lot of the time we’re simply fighting over dinner plans, making dumb jokes about movies we just saw, and teasing each other about things that really don’t matter. Sure, in the end, we all want to move towards the big ideas (love, happiness, comfort in self), but the steps that we actually take in that direction are rarely the big philosophical leaps that culture likes to deify. Rather, our paths can be wandering and indulgent and pointless—and that’s okay. Just because we focus on the little things doesn’t make us catty or any less big-hearted. We can be stupid and goofy without having to forsake our intelligence.
Furthermore, a happy ending isn’t just getting the girl, settling down, reconciling all our differences, and coming to some grand conclusion about our hearts, our families, or the universe. Sometimes, it’s just beer and a pretzel from a street vendor. For the characters in “Happy Endings,” that can be enough.