If the show they were working on weren’t so flat and lacking in laughter, I’d actually feel sorry for the people involved with ABC’s “Happy Endings,” which debuts Wednesday night at 9:30 and 10 p.m.
Every TV season has a trend – some theme or premise or casting idea that seems to drift from one pilot to the next until you start to wonder if every development executive is spying on every other development exec. This season’s most prominent trend has been three-tiered comedies about groups of friends and/or relatives at different stages of a relationship. The specifics vary, but the basic idea remained in ABC’s “Better With You,” NBC’s “Perfect Couples,” FOX’s “Traffic Light” and now “Happy Endings.”
It’s also been one of this season’s least successful trends. NBC pulled “Perfect Couples” off the schedule several weeks early, and “Better with You” and “Traffic Light” both seem to be playing out the string.
So as one show after another with this fundamental premise has struggled, if not outright failed, the cast and crew responsible for “Happy Endings” have had to sit on the sidelines, realizing more with each passing week that they, like the other shows, seem to have miscalculated the zeitgeist. No one seems interested in this theme, and that’s even with shows that have been better-executed and funnier than “Happy Endings.” It’s likely a dead show walking, and it hasn’t even debuted yet.
Our sextet this time is centered on Dave (Zachary Knighton from “FlashForward”) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert, aka “24” punchline Kim Bauer), whose long-term relationship flames out spectacularly when she leaves him at the altar. This leaves the rest of their close-knit group of friends – including her sister Jane (Eliza Coupe from “Scrubs”), Jane’s husband Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), Dave’s gay best friend Max (Adam Pally) and Alex’s panicked singleton pal Penny (Casey Wilson from “SNL”) – wondering if they can all stick together as a unit or if they have to pick sides.
And that question might interest me if these six weren’t collectively so unpleasant to spend time with – and that “Happy Endings” seems only vaguely aware of that unpleasantness. It’s a show that thinks it’s a 21st century “Friends” when it’s really a watered-down network version of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
I actually like Coupe a lot. She was one of the best parts of the final two seasons of “Scrubs” (or, if you prefer, the final season of “Scrubs” and the only season of “Scrubs Med School”), the most watchable performer in HBO’s unaired Dallas dramedy “12 Miles of Bad Road” and someone I’m generally pleased to see when she pops up in TV guest spots. She has this unapologetic, fearlessly abrasive quality that usually makes an amusing contrast to the nicer characters on the shows she’s done. Here, though, everyone’s pitched at the same smug, selfish, cartoonish level, insulting and undermining each other at every turn, yet still treating each other – and being treated by the show – as if there’s genuine affection underneath it all.
The stories, meanwhile, are so cliched and/or goofy that the show at times has to apologize for them. In the second episode airing Wednesday, Dave struggles to figure out how to dump a girl when their one-night stand somehow turns into a committed relationship, and as Max and Brad suggest lies and wacky schemes he could try – most of which he has to resort to – someone compares the situation to the plot of a bad Dane Cook movie. A later episode deals with Max’s refusal to come out to his parents, which ultimately requires all three women to pose as one of his girlfriends, and Dave to act like he’s the member of the group who’s gay.
It’s all too frantic, too full of obnoxious people contorting themselves into stupid lies in the service of jokes that never quite land. If I hadn’t seen three other similar – but all better in some way – sitcoms this season, I might have slightly more patience due to pre-existing affection for Coupe and Casey Wilson. But I’ve seen this show before, and I’m as interested in it as the audience at large seems to be so far.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org