Friday, July 10, 2015

Misery Loves Company: Shalom Auslander's Happyish

Steve Coogan in Showtime's Happyish.

"It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe."
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794)
"Damn it Bones, you're a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!"
James T. Kirk, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Last winter, Shalom Auslander's dark comedy Happyish had its tragic 15 minutes, as a minor footnote to the shocking death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just two weeks earlier, the Hoffman-starring Happyish had been picked up by Showtime for its 2015 season. Without its star, the new comedy's future was in question. Eight months later, it was announced that Steve Coogan (The Trip, the Oscar-nominated Philomena, and of course the BBC's "Alan Partridge") would replace Hoffman in the show's central role, and the series would be retooled around the British actor. On April 5th, the series premiered with a rewritten and reshot first episode to a decidedly lacklustre critical reception. I don't know how Hoffman would have inhabited the role, but Coogan is perfectly cast as the recently 44-year-old Thom Paine, a Manhattan ad man suffering overlapping midlife and existential crises, and depression. The first episode of the series also introduces us to the show's ensemble of unhappy and variably unlikeable characters, including Paine's equally depressed but more explosively angry wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn, Crossing Jordan, Parks and Recreation), Paine's resigned-yet-philosophical friend Dani (Ellen Barkin, The Big Easy), and his broken, alcoholic boss and best friend, Jonathan (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing).

If you are familiar with Auslander from his radio appearances on NPR's This American Life and CBC Radio's Wiretap, or his 2007 memoir Foreskin's Lament, you will not be surprised by the tone or content of Happyish. (If you haven't heard of Auslander, a brief peak at the landing page of his personal website will probably tell you all you need to know about his outlook.) Early episodes of the season were rather heavy on the "-ish" and rather short on the "Happy," and it is easy to appreciate the response they generated. In all truth, even with such a strong cast and with recurring appearances of persecuted Keebler elves in Paine's externalized unconscious, Happyish is not groundbreaking television, and its premiere episode had all of its failings on full display. But those charmed by Auslander's uniquely bitter voice (he penned all 10 of the season's episodes) and who survived until the season finale two weeks ago will have experienced an oftentimes poignant, always pointed, and regularly thoughtful reflection on modern malaise.

The deliberately named Thom Paine (the character's namesake Thomas Paine is easily the most contrarian of the American Founding Fathers, a revolutionary and intellectual who took on the institutions of religion, state, and even more sacred totems like property rights during his embattled lifetime) isn't the only avatar for Auslander's voice. Though Paine is Auslander's most obvious proxy in the series,the writer generously spreads the disenchantment around. Lee is as much a star of the series as Thom, and Auslander's scripts give Hahn room to shine. (Lee also has the honour of bearing the majority of Auslander's famous ambivalence to his Jewish upbringing. Lee's absent but still very present Jewish mother hovers always just off-screen, and a scene from Auslander's own Hebrew school reminiscences is replayed in one episode.) As Thom battles to maintain some scrap of mental and moral integrity in the advertising world, Lee struggles with balancing motherhood and her own artistic ambitions; her vain attempts to find even a brief moment to paint alongside all the unwritten obligations of modern parenthood is a recurring trope of practically every episode, and her mounting frustration builds to a crescendo by the season's close. Auslander's refusal to make Thom's home life yet another site of disappointment and disillusion gives the story a groundedness and reality that complicates, but never undermines, the dark cynicism of the series. Together with their young son, Lee and Thom have built a home that is a deliberate refuge from the outside world. The portrait of their relationship is the most truthful part of a story that relishes ripping off masks, and their warts-and-all devotion to one another and their child demonstrates a kind of post-romantic love that is the best part of the series.

Kathryn Hahn in Happyish.

Bradley Whitford also deserves special mention. Since The West Wing, he has had two failed starring television roles, the first (and my favourite, before Happyish) was Matt Nix's light buddy-cop series The Good Guys (2010), which was unjustifiably cancelled by Fox after one season, and ABC's poorly-titled but also ill-treated Trophy Wife. It is a pleasure to see Whitford dig into his darker side again.

Happyish doesn't reinvent the television comedy, but it delivers an emotional and sometimes genuinely intellectual wallop that remains all too rare. And for all its faults, lack of ambition isn't one of them. Even if its intellectual name dropping Camus, Freud, Nabokov, and Bukowski to list a few sometimes feels too much (even to this New Yorker reader and Bored to Death fan), it is a risk worth running if it also results in dialogue that confidently invokes teleological arguments for God's existence and for a Descartes reference in an SSRI-themed "Let It Go" musical parody sequence that one of the show's most hilariously profane moments.

But Auslander's literary background is also on display in more subtle ways, which maintains the show's realism despite its surrealist elements. (Thom and Lee's unconsciouses are populated not only by Keebler elves, but also alien spaceships and even Moses makes a cameo appearance.) Across the season, conversations recur and repeat, as do situations and reactions: Lee's struggles to maintain what she calls her "bubble" and her unrestrained screaming sessions in her locked car, Dani's theories about the subjective nature of happiness, Jonathan's ad hoc theory of terrorism as branding opportunity, and subtle callbacks like Thom buying a toy alien for his son. The narrative restraint of these small moments of continuity belie the far less subtle screeds against iPhones, viral marketing, and the shallow hypocrisy contemporary corporate-speak, and reveal a consistent voice that in a thousand small ways add up to a story that is far more than the sum of its parts.

Here's what it comes down to: I enjoyed Happyish, and I enjoyed it more and more as the season progressed. I am also aware that I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. It is shrill, and pretentious, and sometimes unrepentantly dark. It takes on contemporary screen- and meme-obsessed culture head on, most often without subtlety. Happyish dares to alienate its audience, and it is no failing of the viewer if they take the intentionally given bait and bail early on. It is more often a story about the idea of happiness rather than the fact of it, but once those particular ambitions become clear, it serves those ends ably. And by season's end, you will have experienced a nuanced portrayal of its central broken characters, who despite first impressions, are capable of real, if momentary, contentment, and even -- contrary to all sitcom convention -- learning a thing or two.

Showtime has yet to renew Happyish for a second season, but I hope it returns.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.         

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