Friday, July 27, 2012

TV Review: Two seasons in, "Happy Endings" should have no trouble living up to its title

     "Happy Endings" cast, left to right: Zachary Knighton,
     Eliza Coupe, Damon Wayans Jr., Casey Wilson, Adam Pally,
     and Elisha Cuthbert. (Not pictured: cougar)

You may have noticed over the last couple of years (or longer, even) that certain TV seasons were dominated by a recurring theme or premise.

For example, last year ABC picked up three comedies about the plight of the white male: the first was "Last Man Standing", in which Tim Allen somehow baffled-by-modern-culture'd his way into a second season. The second was its original timeslot partner "Man Up", in which three white guys played video games in their basements while their wives looked on derisively (at least until November, when they were cancelled). The third, and easily the biggest offender, was "Work It" in which men were desperate enough to dress up in drag and act in one of the worst series in the history of television.

The year before that, however, was the year of the sitcom that followed the hijinks of three couples, connected in some way, that were each in different stages of their relationships. The first to premiere was ABC's "Better with You", which wasn't very funny but starred a lot of likeable people, like Joanna Garcia and Debra Jo Rupp. Next up was NBC's "Perfect Couples" which was just as unfunny and incredibly similar in almost every way except for being a single camera show (seriously, they even had Kyle Bornheimer compete against "Better With You"'s Josh Cooke as duelling showkillers - although as expected, both lost again.). Fox also had a similar setup with a comedy called "Traffic Light", which featured fewer couples but wasn't any funnier.

And just as all of those shows had either died or were about to die, in came the season's closing act: ABC's "Happy Endings", which is sometimes funnier in singular episodes than those other three shows combined.

This wasn't always the case - in fact, based on its initial pilot, the premise it attempted to launch, and the track record of its three predecessors, critics were understandably skepitcal. If you read Alan Sepinwall (and you should), you're probably aware that while he put "Happy Endings" on his hypothetical 2012 Emmy ballot for Outstanding Comedy Series, he hated the show when it first premiered, and he only finally warmed to it when it started to abandon its initial unfunny premise in which Alex left longtime boyfriend Dave at the altar and their friends, as a result, tried to figure out how they could still all be friends, or at worst, who would remain friends with which half of the heart-broke couple.

And then a funny thing happened - finally. Much like "Cougar Town", the series seemed to realize after a few not so great episodes that the comedic potential of its cast, which included fired-too-soon "SNL" cast member Casey Wilson, the beautiful but sometimes delightfully terrifying Eliza Coupe from "Scrubs", and "New Girl" guest star Damon Wayans Jr., was going to be more instrumental in whether or not the show was as funny as it could be (or whether or not it totally lived up to its title) than sticking with the lame premise that presumably got them ordered to series.

So with that, Max, Penny, Brad, and Jane stopped having separate breakfasts with Dave and Alex and started throwing surprise birthday parties, getting high at the dentist, and becoming a-mahzing besties with Chloe and the Madisons. Finally understanding the power of just letting these six friends play with each other and realizing that Elisha Cuthbert and Zachary Knighton didn't have to be detriments to the show, the writers were able to craft episodes that week in and week out made the "Modern Family" episodes that preceded them look extra terrible by comparison.

Characters that had initially struggled in the beginning started to find their comedic voices. Alex initially felt like something of a stick in the mud who the show often had standing in their way, as if they had to find ways to keep her busy for 21 minutes. Last spring, she provided the funniest moments in some episodes that were otherwise kinda flat. Max's funny moments in the first season never had anything to do with his sexuality, and all of those "jokes" he would make about being gay were barely jokes at all - just lazy, repetitive reminders to the audience that he was the least stereotypical gay man on television. To find it's way out of that to this past season's Valentine's Day episode, focusing largely on an actually very solid and touching story about Max in a real relationship, is pretty remarkable. Coupe and Wayans have to get credit for being able to play characters that are both funny, but also loving and seemingly near perfect-for-each-other without inducing nausea. And Casey Wilson almost had to find her way out of the trap creator David Caspe wrote for Penny in the pilot, where she was a neurotic woman terrified of getting older and still being single. She's still on the lookout for her soulmate, but not in the way that every failed date makes her completely depressed. A potential Dave/Penny romance does not sound like promising territory for the fall, but nothing is set and stone and who knows where we'll find the characters in the third season.

Said third season is due to premiere on ABC on Tuesday, October 23 at 9/8c. Now completely out of the shadow of those we not-so-sadly lost from the TV class of 2010-2011, the show is poised to continue heading towards the finish line remembered as one of the funniest comedies on TV - a truly happy ending.