The best phrase to describe Happy Endings, which wrapped up its third season on Friday night, is “live-action cartoon.” Not only does that sum-up the overall consequence-free, wonderfully-detached shenanigans its characters get up to, it also describes the shows resilience, somehow making it to three seasons and 57 episodes despite ABC constantly shuffling it around the schedule and airing it in hour chunks to burn it off every year. Here’s hoping it can survive the latest Friday-night-shaped anvil thrown its way and get renewed again.
The primary appeal of Happy Endings is the chemistry between its cast, the rapid-fire dialogue, and the very lack of emphasis on plot or emotional stakes that can make the shape of the season a little hard to remember. When season three started Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) was unemployed, I think? Or he was pretending not to be unemployed? The important part is that for a few episodes he worked at a kids play-center run by a deranged David Alan Grier, and it was hilarious. I can’t remember what his wife Jane (the acutely-sharp Eliza Coupe) did for a living before taking a job selling used cars under Rob Coreddry either, but again – not the point. Everyone’s primary occupation is hanging out with one another and being funny.
In fact, the series initially began (and I imagine this was a big part of the pitch for the show) right after Elisha Cuthbert’s Alex had just left Zachary Knighton’s Dave at the altar, the kind of high-drama, serialized element that every sitcom seems to think it needs in the post-Friends era. But they ended up casually dating again at the end of season two, and moved in together at the beginning of this year. Ultimately, it made little difference, as the characters all play well off one another whether they’re romantically paired or not (and the delightfully vapid Dave and Alex are a great pair, either way).
Casey Wilson’s Penny continues to break out as a character. Portrayed as a quintessential romantic sad-sack in the past, she gets engaged to the impossible handsome normal guy Pete (Nick Zano), who lasts an entire 8 episodes on the show. Pete’s presence allows for the usual wedding-planning-sitcom tropes, but also for the show to highlight its own ridiculousness. In “The Ex Factor,” Penny hangs out with Pete’s normal-person friends and can’t understand the lack of zany adventures or need for elaborate excuses when leaving a social gathering.
Adam Pally’s character Max remains the most obvious attempt by Happy Endings to flout convention, as he continues to be a sitcom character that just happens to be gay, instead of a gay character entirely defined by his orientation. Max is much more defined by generally being a layabout, mooch, and self-involved schemer, generally betraying each of the cast in some way and then apologizing. Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Happy Endings has the best and most eclectic guest-star roster) has a memorable two-episode turn as Max’s roommate-turned-nemesis, which hopefully will recur.
ABC shelved the show for two months over the winter and eventually started airing two episodes at a time on Friday nights at the end of March, so the last ten episodes aired in back-to-back installments, which isn’t really the best way to take in a hangout show like Happy Endings. It ended up giving short shrift to the whole “Penny’s engaged!” storyline, as well as some late-season Dave/Alex stuff that set the stage for next year.
But the elastic, lightweight tone of the show is its greatest strength. In the premiere, Max pulls a “Misery” on an injured Penny in order to spend more time with her physical therapist, objectively horrifying behavior in the real world, but Penny accepts his apology (on the grounds that she once did the exact same thing to him). In the episode “In the Heat of the Noche,” Max and Penny once again team up for a storyline that sees them ingesting cartoonish amounts of a black-market cough medicine in Requiem for a Dream-style montages, and sleeping for inhuman periods of time, all to little consequence. Happy Endings even manages to put its own spin on several done-to-death sitcom tropes this season. There’s the standard “breaking something and covering it up” in “Fowl Play/Date,” but it’s when Brad and Penny accidentally kill Alex’s racist parrot (a recurring character!). There’s a standard flashback episode, with the twist that it’s old tapes of The Real World, of which Max and Brad were supposedly cast members.
It’s a fun balancing act. Happy Endings doesn’t quite commit to the deadpan absurdity of the full-on parody Community episodes, but it stays meta enough to hang a lantern on any sitcom cliche it introduces in order to get away with it. The last two episodes see characters referencing how much time the groups spends together in detail, as well as mentioning how weird it is that one of the group has a sibling that’s never been mentioned before.
One more season would push Happy Endings right to the 80-episode range that seems to be the border for syndication these days, and honestly its one of the best shows for it because of its effervescent style. Let’s hope ABC (or some other network) gives this cast of cartoons the reprieve they deserve.