I’m glad ABC is developing good sitcoms, but do they have to have such bad titles? There’s Suburgatory, which debuted last fall and answers to that must-stumble portmanteau, and there’s Happy Endings (ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET), which debuted earlier in 2011 as a midseason replacement. The jejune bodily fluid humor, the discouraging synonymy with a 2005 Lisa Kudrow film, and above all the dreary optimism: All these my ears heard as turn-offs.
Nor did the basic premise—six best friends in Chicago live and love and slack around and yup it up—excite my eyes at a superficial glance. But in fact Happy Endings displays an invigorating antipathy to the Central Perkiness of young urban laughfests. The gang of six here—a web of spouses, siblings, exes, childhood friends, and veteran couchsurfers—is wacky in some of the ways you know from watching too much television. What makes them memorable, though, is that they’re wacky in the ways you know from hanging out with people who watch too much television.
Quick-drawing quips, eager to test limits and edges, these people are always performing for one another. The episode that confirmed for me the spark of the show involved the marrieds (Damon Wayans Jr. and Eliza Coupe), who’d been taking an improv class, helping out the semi-Kramerly gay slacker (Adam Pally), who’d had a harebrained business scheme, by ad-libbing a fifth-rate history of the Second City for a tour group. Happy Endings buzzes with some of that improv energy all the time.
And with pop: This season’s first episode references Frasier, Misery, Hot in Cleveland, Wendy Williams, the alleged hookup of David Bowie and Mick Jagger, and Yoko Ono’s solo work, just for starters. There’s also a scene where the married dude strides into a corporate office eager to hear “the sweet sound of men quoting classic comedies”; colleagues fire off Caddyshack and Old School lines forthwith. This season’s second episode employs the name of the actress C.C.H. Pounder as a mild expletive. There’s a soft gloss to Happy Endings’ self-awareness as it toys with the sitcom format, plugging in such micro-bloops of sketch comedy as the opener of a Halloween episode, an homage to the Jackson 5 that glories in its LaToya jokes. This is the long way of saying that the more open-minded of hard-core Community fans may have found a new show.
The actors are loose, but the writing, overseen by series creator David Caspe, is tight. The pun of the title promises crude dirty jokes, but it turns out that the crude jokes are sophisticated, glossing contemporary romance and modern manners while surveying the wreckage of random hookups and the state of marriage. It also seems that the title is very slightly apologizing for the limits of the sitcom form. “I’ll be there for you, ‘cause you’re there for me, too”—that tidiness is an essential part of the subgenre of the BFF rat-pack sitcom. But whenever this gang reconvenes in the same corner of the same bar to affirm their group friendship and discuss what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown, they do so without sentiment. Watching these denouement summits, you get the sense that the characters are just unwinding before gearing up for more self-delusion. They don’t quite have it in them to drive home a moral. They barely have it in them to drive home.