Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to write. I love “Happy Endings.” “Happy Endings” is one of the best sitcoms on television, featuring one of the most comedically talented ensembles in the business. The second season of “Happy Endings” was one of the five best sitcom seasons of the last decade. It is a brilliant ensemble sitcom and I will continue to watch it ABC pries it away from us.
“Happy Endings” isn’t as good as it once was. In fact, the fall off has been precipitous, and the only reason why it’s still as good as it is, is because it had a lot of room to fall. But it’s not the same. Maybe it’s because there’s been some turnover in the writer’s room. Maybe it’s the absence of David Guarascio and Moses Port (who left to run “Community”), maybe it’s network meddling, or maybe it’s just an off season.
But it’s not as good. I used to watch every episode twice. Now, I find myself occasionally checking my phone the first time through.
The problem areas are twofold. First of all, “Happy Endings” has fallen prey to the “Friends”-icization of its characters. Over on “New Girl,” the characters began with odd quirks, affectations, and mannerisms, but as the series has progressed, we’ve gotten underneath those silly idiosyncrasies and gotten to know the characters. It’s worked in the opposite direction on “Happy Endings.” Max is a crankier, straight-gay, almost to the point of hostility. Jane gets progressively more cutting, sarcastic, and cold. Alex has added binge eating (see Joey Tribbiani) to her dumb blonde stereotype, Penny abbreviates EVERY GODDAMN word that comes out of her mouth, while Dave is even Dave-ier than usual.
The worst thing to happen to “Happy Endings,” however, has been what they’ve done to Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.) over the course of the season. A lot of people who work on “Happy Endings” (including a couple of the showrunners) cut their teeth over on Bill Lawrence’s “Scrubs,” and the influence of Turk’s character has been obvious: He’s a bro that plays up his femininity, which worked to great effect for awhile. But now? I don’t think Brad has said anything in a normal voice all season: It’s all high-pitched baby talk or Groucho-You-Know-What-I’m-Saying bravado. He’s a man’s man, but he likes to play “wife,” he can’t fix a light dimmer, he enjoys time at the spa and he’s controlled by his woman, who loves his feminine side in part, perhaps, because she used to sleep with ladies. It’s an amalgamation of subverted stereotypes, but it doesn’t make them any less stereotypical.
The second, and perhaps more detrimental problem with season three is that the show itself — and the characters — have become too self-regarding. They’ve gotten high on their own sense of humor, and the inside jokes are no longer with the audience, but with themselves. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but there was a rumor floating around a couple of months ago that guest stars have suddenly refused to work on the show, citing the fact that the cast itself is too cliquey, and wouldn’t let anyone into their inner circle (the rumor suggested that Megan Mullaly had insisted that she’d never work on the show again after the principle cast shunned her). I don’t know if the rumor is true, but I can see why it would get started: At times that the inner circle doesn’t seem to want to allow the audience in, either.
Indeed, one of the things that endeared me to “Happy Endings” in the first place was its frequent use of pop-culture references. Now? It’s almost as though the characters speak in only pop-culture shorthand. They don’t express feelings; they borrow them from other television shows and movies, which has made it more difficult to connect emotionally with the characters.
ABC’s experiment with airing “Happy Endings” on Sunday nights these last couple of weeks is over, and it’s failure has demonstrated a couple of things. First of all, that “Happy Endings” core base is not rabid enough to follow the show around to different time slots (the show received its two lowest rates episodes ever on Sunday nights). More importantly, this last Sunday’s kickball episode — an unaired episode from season two that ended up being the best episode I’ve seen since last season — demonstrated the difference between this year and last. Those characters cared for each other, and the insults at each other’s expense were less cutting and more good natured. That was an ensemble episode; this season has been about which individual character can exaggerate his or her idiosyncrasies the most.
That, ultimately, will be why “Happy Endings” — despite marginally better ratings — won’t inspire the outcry that “Community” does every time cancellation is suggested, and why — after ABC burns off the remaining episodes — the show wil fade quietly, only to be rediscovered by millions more on Netflix or Hulu next year, once it’s too late to save it. “Happy Endings” is a great show; sometimes it’s even Ah-Mah-Zing, but as funny as we think the characters are, it’s hard to invest ourselves into them emotionally because they simply won’t let us. The show has become our “funny friend,” that guy in every group who tells the best jokes, but who we know very little about. A great sense of humor will earn you a lifetime pass on our DVRs, but it takes more than that to earn a “Save Our Show” campaign.