Syfy’s latest show opens with it’s lead character, the disgraced cop turned hitman Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni) coughing up blood in a bar bathroom, then shooting himself in the head. That last part turns out to be a hallucination, because Nick proceeds to have a very merry dance party with imaginary scantily clad women while a literal blood geyser splashes out of his noggin.
Folks, believe me when I say that this scene is the perfect entry point for this show. Sure, it tells you nothing about the plot, but if you’re not wide-eyed with rapturous joy by this point then I don’t know what to tell you. Just turn it off. That was your warning. This shit isn’t going to get any easier to digest. The rest of the episode is filled with blow jobs, pissing, more blood, brutal murders, rampant drug abuse, and a dude who threatens to slice Sax’s penis like salami.
The thing about Happy! (both the show, and the original graphic novel it’s based on, created by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson) is that it exists in the liminal space between irrational glee and the most comically gruesome, brutal side of humanity. The story finds its strength and its aesthetic vision by mining the juxtaposition between those two extremes, which have been pushed beyond the boundaries of logic. The plot, in a nutshell: Nick Sax is a hard to kill sonofabitch who ends up with a priceless piece of intel during a hit gone messy: the password to some mysterious mafia account. Now he’s wanted by a bunch of dangerous goons, but his REAL problem is that he’s seeing an imaginary flying blue horse named Happy everywhere. And Happy needs Nick’s help, because a little girl named Hailey has been kidnapped by the scariest looking Santa Claus EVER — a creep who has locked her in a crate next to a lot of other (presumably child-filled) crates. Happy is Hailey’s imaginary friend, and Nick used to be a very good detective. Together, can they save her from certain doom?
Patton Oswalt voices Happy with the kind of ecstatic pep that would make even the most stone-cold sober of us want to slam our heads into the wall. He’s like a renegade sidekick from a second tier Dreamworks cartoon. To a man as thoroughly pickled and degenerate as Nick is, having Happy buzzing around is a special kind of torment. Saying this series is over-the-top doesn’t begin to describe just how gonzo it is — though pointing out that Brian Taylor, one half of the duo behind the Crank films, is leading this adaptation should give you an indication. Happy is an obvious sign of this show’s delirium. But Meloni as Sax is a more subtle beast.
Not, like, literally subtle. There is nothing subtle in this show, period. But unlike Happy, he’s not an actual cartoon. Meloni plays his character as a dark mirror of his beloved Law and Order: SVU detective, Elliot Stabler — mixed liberally with Gene from Wet Hot American Summer, plus something new that I’ve never seen. He’s dangerous and gritty and funny and exasperated. He’s disgusting. He’s foul. He’s got a death wish of a sort. Whatever spark of nobility remains to him has been spackled over by his many crimes. His face achieves expressions so rubberized they should be the creation of CG. And this is probably the finest performance I’ve ever scene from Meloni. The camera is always hitting him at an angle — looking down on him, looking up at him — as if the fabric of his existence had been distorted before Happy ever winged into it. There is a sequence in an ambulance, after Sax has had a heart attack, that is probably the hardest I’ve laughed at a show in ages. A paramedic is about to inject him with adrenaline, but Sax wakes up and is having none of it. He jams the needle into the dudes neck, pulls his gun, then starts shouting for morphine and various other drugs, ordering the second paramedic to administer them in precise doses. Sax is mostly trying to self-medicate the pestering Happy away, and his behavior evolves throughout the scene as various drugs take hold.
This is the scene that should win Meloni an award, but likely never will.
Anyway, this is a gross, weird, frenetic show filled with horrible people and terrible deeds, but it’s also one of the most inventively shot and acted things I’ve seen on TV. As an adaptation, it’s spot on. And as a show, it’s mission statement seems to be: let’s do whatever hasn’t been done on TV before. But the heart of the show, if you can call it that, is the budding camaraderie between Sax and Happy. Will this unlikely duo save the children? Will Nick find his own sort of redemption? You’ll have to tune in to find out. But nobody will blame you if you don’t. After all, you’d have to be pretty fucked up for this to be your cup of tea.
I, obviously, will be watching the whole damn thing.