Happyish begins with a character venting in voiceover before breaking the fourth wall to flip the screen off in a gesture of defiance toward the subject of his ire, in what’s soon revealed to be a recurring gimmick. In the pilot, Thom Payne (Steve Coogan) lectures Thomas Jefferson for the vagueness of the phrase “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” because, like, what’s happiness anyway? Thom is another of those successful middle-aged men, turning 44 at the start of the series, who’s terrified of losing what he’s got to an up-and-coming generation that values heartlessly instantaneous social media over “real” qualities such as books and direct, lasting friendship and co-worker loyalty. The series is aware of the irony that Thom works in advertising, the trendiest, most superficial, cutthroat, and manipulative of occupations, and that his willed naïveté and self-righteousness are hypocritical dodges that are ultimately intended to safeguard his vain conception of himself as the hero in the narrative of his life. Happyish isn’t, however, willing to confront its flip acknowledgement of Thom’s delusion for what it is, which is yet another, slightly more insidious form of evasion gussied up for self-conscious, white-guilt-ridden audiences.
The middle-finger gesture that opens each episode is emblematic of what Happyish is peddling: faux outrage that’s just confrontational enough to allow economically comfortable yuppies to congratulate themselves for their awareness of their acquiescent consumption as a means of living with it. The series is stricken with an insufferable inferiority complex; every bit is intended to flout and assert the show’s theoretically hip and edgy bona fides, particularly the cutesy opening credits, which name-drop legendary figures who vaguely figure into the plot as if they’re stars of the series. The third episode, for instance, is said to feature “Vladmir Nabokov, Hippocrates and God,” which suggests that the writers randomly select phrases from balls blowing around in a lotto machine.
Creator Shalom Auslander is clearly striving for a statement on How We Live Now, as characters are routinely stopping in their tracks to drop bon mots such as “Thinking is not as important as tweeting” and “We each have our own joy ceiling.” Thom, who’s an aspiring novelist (natch), is appalled when young creative directors are brought into his agency to contemporize his campaigns, particularly when they suggest replacing the Keebler elves with real people for a series of short viral films. For Thom, this stratagem, which is presumably no different from the sort of flimflam he routinely produces, is a perversion, and while the series parodies his panic, it’s clear that his frustrations are ultimately meant to indicate a flawed but essentially decent man who “gets it,” and has the courage to lament his own fealty to the Man while nevertheless enjoying the Man’s baubles. As another character says at one point, in an exchange that’s characteristically artlessly ornate, “You suck the same cocks we all do, Thom. Wincing at the taste doesn’t make you a better man, it only makes you a worse whore.”
The show’s thrashing about is an elaborate pretense for another reactionary screed against anything that’s perceived to threaten the bubble of the eroding upper-middle class. This anxiety is also explicit in the show’s text, notably sounded out in voiceover by Thom’s wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), as Happyish is undeniably thorough in its measures to critic-proof itself. But it never evinces empathy for, say, the new creative directors (who inadvertently command the audience’s sympathy for the straightforwardness of their calculation). Or, especially, the attractive millennial admins who circle Thom and his crew tirelessly, who’re inheriting a culture that seemingly requires a PhD for entry-level jobs that no longer exist anyway, and who’re fighting to gain a patch of professional turf from people like Thom, who, despite their oceans of self-pity, are fat sharks with connections and know-how. And Happyish pulls back whenever its bloviating threatens to draw actual satirical blood, such as in a promising scene in which Thom’s team is tasked with selling the military to disenfranchised kids as a means of rebellion against their parents. Thom’s disgust is initially registered, but in an unforgivably chicken-shit coda that’s designed to kowtow to our culture’s presently unquestioned military worship, he’s shown to be buddy-buddy with the officers soliciting the campaign.
That sequence is Happyish’s have-it-both-ways philosophy in a nutshell. It desperately wants to be seen as cheeky and daring, and consequently there are no casual touches. Even the considerable and studied profanity is delivered with a buzz-killing element of unearned self-congratulation, as if the words “fuck” and “pussy” are badges of artistic honor in and of themselves. But the series ultimately doesn’t wish to upset the applecart of a society that actually buys those extensively plugged Keebler cookies either. Early on, Thom has the gall to bash Mad Men for glorifying a venal profession, and, on one level, it certainly does, but that series has been obsessively preoccupied with the pain that lies underneath America’s illusion of can-do paradise. There’s nothing like that beneath Happyish’s opportunistic hood, as it’s the TV equivalent of a rich, materialistic smartass who’s obnoxiously insisting that they’re sensitive inside.