No part of Showtime’s new comedy Happyish feels remotely original, but there’s a moment in its pilot episode that's one of the most unforgivably stale tropes in Hollywood: a lame bit of dramatic shorthand used to convey the pressures of encroaching middle age. Grumpy advertising executive Thom (Steve Coogan) is in bed with his wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), trying to clear the mental space to have sex, when his kid calls from the other room, baying for his mother, and stopping any coitus before it even had a chance to be interruptus.
Television-viewing audiences must reject this ossified bit of symbolism. Yes, it's hard juggling a six-year-old kid and an extremely charming, beautiful wife, but that struggle isn't enough to serve as the narrative engine of a whole TV show. And yet that's basically what Happyish has going for it—it’s a bleak comedy of aging, about a man in his 40s who should be content with his life, but who nonetheless finds himself struggling with depression and work-related anxiety. Despite its assembled talent, and occasionally sharp or surreal moments, it never manages to be the deeply insightful dark comedy it thinks it is.
Happyish has had an extremely rocky road to the screen. Created by the author and essayist Shalom Auslander (who wrote the memoir Foreskin’s Lament), a pilot was initially filmed starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and ordered to series by Showtime, but those plans were stalled after the actor's death in 2014. Coogan was eventually hired as a replacement and the show was retooled around him. A fine actor and a brilliant comedian, Coogan has a biting, sarcastic energy that feels restrained most of the time; Thom seems much too smart to believe half the things he’s supposedly thinking.