When Happy Endings debuted in the spring of 2011, it was largely written off, either as yet another subpar Friends clone (in a spring that was strangely full of them) or a “hang-out” sitcom with not enough meat on its bones. It didn’t help matters that much of the abbreviated first season was aired out of order, nor that what serialized plotting the show did have was mostly centered around the romantic travails of Dave (Zachary Knighton) and his ex-fiance Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), who left him at the altar in the pilot. By the time the show returned for its second season, most television viewers had learned to completely ignore its existence, to the point that I imagine its official cancellation as of yesterday (when the actors’ contracts expired, killing all hope for a cable pick up of the sort that saved Cougar Town last year) barely registered as a blip for even many die-hard TV fans.
This is truly a shame, as what we’ve lost with Happy Endings cancellation is one of the most unique, inventive, and hilarious shows on television currently. Over the course of its three seasons, each of which is an arguable improvement on the previous, the show developed a rhythm and sense of style unlike anything else around. It became a sort of screwball comedy with six leads bantering at lightning speed instead of two, a dense comedic whirling dervish powered by one of the best ensembles on television. The show figured out what it was by losing itself to its own pacing, by abandoning the idea of Dave and Alex as straight-men, and by loosening up its reality to allow for an expansively absurd take on life in Chicago, filled with an ever-growing cast of recurring characters, myriad strange events, and plenty of delightfully odd storylines.
In its last two seasons, Happy Endings developed the lightning quick comedic tempo of 30 Rock, the pop-culture density of Community, the hard-earned chemistry of Cougar Town and the tough-edged cruelty of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, all blended together with a sense of winsome whimsy all its own. It broke out of stock plots and into the sort of increasingly strange territory that made room for plot lines like Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Max (Adam Pally) becoming bar mitzvah hype-men under the moniker Boyz II Menorah, the gang agreeing to ignore Christmas entirely to celebrate Jane’s (Eliza Coupe) birthday instead, or Alex and Penny (Casey Wilson) falling in with a group of high school mean girls and regressing hilariously as a result.
The show never lost sight of itself as a long-form romantic comedy, but it took the genre in completely new directions as it progressed. Where in early episodes, Alex and Dave are annoyingly bland, colored in only by their deep romantic history and by the fact that we expect this show will be about how they find themselves back together, the show eventually developed both into comedic high points in a cast full of them. Elisha Cuthbert began the show as dead weight, but as Alex developed into an impossibly ditzy yet craftily cunning character, Cuthbert became the show’s secret weapon, able to tilt a scene that wasn’t working in a completely different direction (turning, for example, a discussion about a character’s egg donation and the child that may have resulted into a skewed riff on sperm banks). Dave, meanwhile, became a dreamer without enough brains to follow through, a quick-talking, slow-thinking driver of some of the show’s most madcap plotlines. Happy Endings was the rare show that actually added to its emotional complexity as it took its characters less seriously, and by the time Alex and Dave inevitably reunited at the end of season two, their coupling was not just about giving the show a skeleton to support its hangdog plotting; the two had developed so much, they not only made sense together, but gave what became the show’s final season many of its comedic high points, including Max’s legendary put-down, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard Alex and Dave talk about the Civil War,” and a sequence in what will now serve as the show’s series finale where the bickering duo manage to lock themselves in progressively smaller spaces, until they are trapped in their shower.
Behind this eventually successful pair was an incredibly strong supporting cast that managed to make the most of characters that were initially cliches, often by subverting them. Brad and Jane remained a Type-A married couple throughout the series’ run, but very quickly cemented themselves as something that is almost never seen on television: a happily married couple, deliriously in love with one another but never losing their own identities in the process (compare this to Marshall and Lily on How I Met Your Mother, who have barely had an individual storyline since their wedding). Max was anything but the token gay friend, a slacker stuck in arrested development and always scheming to get rich without much effort, including an inspired, multi-episode season two arc where he drove an unlicensed limo and gave uninformed tours of Chicago (telling patrons the Sears Tower was nicknamed “Beers Tower” because everyone was going to buy him beers). And Penny, stuck with easily the most overdone stock-type, the desperate single friend, became winning through the force of Casey Wilson’s performance, which could take Penny from disaffected cool to wide-eyed desperation at the drop of a hat.
Happy Endings wasn’t always perfect, but it provided something completely unique to a network sitcom landscape that can often seem static in the last half decade. The set-up and many of the storylines were vintage sitcom cliches, but this show approached each trope with its own increasingly confident style, to the point where, at its heights, nothing could derail an episode. The cast was pitch-perfect (literally any of the three actresses would well-deserve a Best Supporting Actress Emmy for this season), the jokes came so hard and fast that duds would fly right by, and the character dynamics the show developed were unlike anything on television. These people could be as mean to each other as the Sunny gang, putting each other down and scheming to undercut their friends at any turn, but they also cared about each other as much as any ensemble on television (except maybe Parks and Rec, a love-fest of epic proportions). This was a madcap screwball comedy, an absurdist hang out show, and a surprisingly arresting romantic comedy all rolled into one. I can’t say that Happy Endings will become a vastly influential sitcom anytime soon, if only because I’m not sure any other show would be capable of pulling off the high speed high-wire act this was at its best. When it began, I too was prepared to write the show off. Now that it has ended prematurely, I find myself curious about each happy ending we will never see. From humble beginnings, Happy Endings grew to become one of the best comedies on television in 2013. It was, to coin a phrase, “amahhhzing.”
– Jordan Ferguson