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Reconsidering Happy Endings: It’s Pretty Funny

Happy Endings premiered three weeks ago, to not very good reviews. Coming at the end of a season-long barrage of Friends knockoffs, it was not only hard to distinguish from the meh-shows (Better With You, Traffic Light, Mad Love, Perfect Couples) that had come before it, but fatigue with the basic premise — six people hanging around all the time — had set in long ago. But, five episodes in, Happy Endings has separated itself from that mediocre pack, and we don't mean that to be damning it with faint praise: It's actually pretty funny. Really!

Happy Endings is not as formally inventive or tightly executed as the comedies over on NBC's Thursday night, but the dialogue is sharp. Though the premise is tired, some of the characters are surprisingly fresh, particularly Max (Adam Pally) and Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) — a dude's dude who just happens to be gay, and a slightly effeminate but happily married man. Even the uptight older sister, Jane, isn't as shrill as you'd expect her to be. She's a Monica, for sure, but with a better sense of humor. (The only really thankless, boring character is Elisha Cuthbert's Alex, the girl who left the boy at the altar in the pilot.)

The show Happy Endings is most tonally similar to, though this is not necessarily a good sign for its ratings, is Cougar Town. Yes, the cast is younger and less down on their luck — Happy Endings is about urbane, young professionals, so brunch and dating are regular features; not so much with Cougar Town, about a less young, less professional, more Floridian bunch — but there's a similar silly streak. The friends play goofy games (last night, they spent the whole episode shooting suction-cup darts at one another), bizarre happenings are taken at face value (one character can speak Italian fluently, but only when she's drunk; a strange man lives in the ceiling of the boys' apartment), they drop pop-culture references constantly, and coin their own slang. There's also a similar sentimental streak — they all really, really love each other. Happy Endings' worldview is a bit more cynical than Cougar Town's (if far less cynical than the reigning champion of wacky sitcoms, 30 Rock), but if the Happy Endings cast ran into the Cul de Sac Crew, you could imagine a great nonsense-off.

Judge for yourself:

Here's an example of one of the show's goofy games, finished off with an excellent made-up word for penis:

An example of an absurd premise, followed to its ridiculous/logical conclusion. There's some setup involved: Penny (Casey Wilson) meets a nice guy at a bar whose last name happens to be Hitler. She is conflicted about dating him. Meanwhile, Max is trying not to tell his parent's he's gay ("Coming out is so gay"), so as a last resort drafts Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) to be his beard. He tells her to hold it on the Yiddishms, because his last beard annoyed his parents with them:

And here's how that plays out ...

An example of the show's use of pop culture:

And two characters just being unexpected and strange:

Please, feel free to disagree in the comments!

Photo: ABC