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.
The internal drama of Happyish is a little too facile to provoke any real pathos. Thom lives in a cute house in Woodstock, New York, with a wife who's by all accounts a terrific lady (Hahn is one of Hollywood’s funniest and most consistently wonderful actresses). He's on Prozac, which has dulled his libido, and he commutes to the city with tiresome finance bros who natter on vapidly about Steve Jobs’ genius on the train platform. He works at an ad agency where he’s beginning to feel hopelessly old and is derided for having an AOL account rather than a Facebook page—another overdone trope.
Thom's boss is played by Bradley Whitford, a pathetic 50-something who desperately strives to stay “with it” to satisfy clients and his own deflated self-worth. With him, the overall message appears to be that working in advertising is a soulless rat race with no hope of fulfillment. No kidding. Isn’t that something Mad Men has been telling viewers for the last seven years? Thom even makes it explicit, telling the audience, “Fuck Mad Men, there’s nothing cool about advertising.” Happyish does that a lot—tears into something perceived to be a sacred idol (the pilot begins with a screed about Thomas Jefferson). But for premium-cable audiences, such cynicism will hardly feel revolutionary.
There’s a little more substance in the Woodstock segments, mostly because Coogan and Hahn are two great actors who find some decent chemistry with each other, despite the underwhelming material. The show swerves from obvious attempts to shock (Thom imagines a conversation with the Keebler Elf that ends in suicide and a sex scene with a cartoon Ma Keebler) to fairly placid observations about the low levels of depression people must accept even as they accumulate the classic markers of success. Thom will never be happy, he decides in the pilot (his voice-over is far too prevalent and often too obvious), but maybe he can live with happy-ish.
It’s a fine sentiment, but just a bit too trite and faux-pithy, in a show that seems a little too pleased with its imagined profundity. That, perhaps, is the Showtime-comedy brand, one that's never really taken root despite the network's great success with its dramas, namely the Emmy-winning Homeland. Happyish gives off the same vibe as Californication, which starred David Duchovny as a sex-crazed novelist with a bleak, clichéd view of society; or Episodes, a damp satire of the TV industry that made Entourage look witty and incisive. Happyish is probably better than either of those shows, but it suffers from the same self-satisfied vibe, and that’s enough to keep it from ever feeling really meaningful.