'Happy Endings' Series Premiere

The characters' dynamic in Happy Endings is most engaging when the humor skews towards the darker side.

Happy Endings

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9:30pm ET
Cast: Zachary Knighton, Elisha Cuthbert, Damon Wayans Jr., Eliza Coupe, Casey Wilson, Adam Pally
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Creator: David Caspe
Air date: 2011-04-13

Midseason replacement shows are a tricky proposition, especially situation comedies. All too often, midseason is a dumping ground for mediocre shows that will be canceled and forgotten shortly at the end of the season. For every popular and critical success like the U.S. version of The Office, there are disappointments like Surviving Suburbia and anything with Megan Mullaly after Will & Grace (remember In the Motherhood?).

Now that How I Met Your Mother has carved out a niche on CBS, other networks are scrabbling to follow suit. Each of the big three has produced sitcoms catering to hip, educated audiences who are pushing 30, spend a lot of time in bars, and make copious amounts of pop culture references. So far this season, NBC premiered Perfect Couples, Fox came up with Traffic Light, and CBS tried for a second success with Mad Love. ABC’s newest entry into this ring is Happy Endings. While none of these shows is as good, or as intricately constructed as Mother, Happy Endings is easily the best of the batch.

As the series begins on 13 April, Dave (Zachary Knighton) looks forward to his own happy ending in Chicago, where he's about to be married to Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), and they are about to be married. He expects to indulge in the entire ritual -- standing at the altar, in front of a priest, surrounded by their four best friends, Jane (Eliza Coupe), Max (Adam Pally), Penny (Casey Wilson), and Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.). Alex, however, doesn’t share Dave’s enthusiasm, and when a sweaty guy wearing rollerblades shows up and objects, Alex bolts, leaving her shocked fiancé and friends behind.

The next time you see Dave, he is alone in his apartment, a blanket wrapped around his head, surrounded by wedding presents, listening to the Indigo Girls while drinking gin smoothies. His friends try to comfort him, only to discover that he’s been writing grim thank you notes, like “Darkness reigns, hope gurgles out its dying breath, thank you for the beautiful crock pot.” His friends worry for him, but they're also distraught for their own reasons, as the breakup has changed their harmony. In order to restore everyone's routines, Dave and Alex come up with the sitcom's premise: they will try to keep it together for the sake of the gang.

That gang might be worth the effort. Their dynamic is most engaging when the humor skews towards the darker side, like when Max compares the disaster at the wedding to a “shark attack at a Sunday school.” These moments suggest that Happy Endings has more bite and inventiveness than the usual reimagining of Friends or Seinfeld. To that end, the gang includes Max, who is gay, and Brad, who is black. But too often, their differences from the usual sitcom ensemble serve as subjects of too-easy gags. As they consider whether they should kick the rollerblading wedding interrupter’s ass, Max quips that Brad is the most likely candidate because he is black, and the guy is probably already afraid of him. Brad responds that Max should do the fighting because he’s chubby and gay, and no one would see that coming.

It's hard not to wonder how Brad, an investment banker, feels about being a black man surrounded by a monochromatic cohort, in Chicago, no less. Or, whether this would change if he and his wife Jane actually move to the suburbs, as they plan to do. And is Max destined to be the drama-craving, sassy gay sidekick, interjecting snarky one liners, or will he develop beyond this stereotype? Penny has her own issues. While her friends seemingly have their lives figured out, she hears the ominous ticking of her biological clock. Will she continue to be the full-figured girl who makes cracks about dying alone with her cats, or will she transcend such caricatured constraints? Based on the pilot episode, her future looks grim.

The Friends-style ensemble show's appeal seems obvious, like a boy band's: the range of characters offers viewers a range of options to like or judge. Happy Endings has doubled down on at least one option, "partnering" with Banana Republic to offer fashions -- modeled by characters and available for purchase by viewers.

This may be Happy Endings' legacy, to be the first show to launch alongside a clothing line. It's less memorable otherwise. As of one episode, it's decently entertaining, though its sharp writing suggests potential. It's earned my interest for at least a couple of more episodes.


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