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‘Cocktails & Dreams’ Is Happy Endings at Its Most Potent

Colin Hanks as (a dumb, boring, obnoxious version of) himself. Photo: ABC

This article was originally published in 2021. At Vulture Festival, we’ll be reminiscing about the many high jinks that took place on Happy Endings — and speculate about what would have happened to the friends in the ten years since the show ended its run — with cast members Adam Pally, Casey Wilson, Elisha Cuthbert, Eliza Coupe, and Zachary Knighton and executive producers David Caspe and Jonathan Groff. Join the gang in Los Angeles on November 13. Tickets are on sale now

There are two types of people: Those who haven’t watched Happy Endings and those who are obsessed with it. If you’re among the former, you’re likely used to the latter’s insistence that the network failed this gone-too-soon favorite, which you should totally stream tonight. (Seriously, come on, you’ll love it). With exceptional chemistry from its leads, rapid-fire dialogue, and pleasantly predictable twists, Happy Endings — which premiered ten years ago today — was genuinely weird and wonderful from the jump. It delivered the formula that TV viewers expect while leaving them breathless after each deranged pun, meta-joke, and niche cultural reference. This expertise is on full display in “Cocktails & Dreams,” the season-two episode in which Dave (Zach Knighton) secures a liquor license for his food truck.

With his boyish good looks and goofy sensibilities, Knighton would be the sole lead on any other prime-time show; plot lines would default to Dave navigating life after being left at the altar by Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) in the pilot. But this is Happy Endings, where his unfailing commitment to increasingly ludicrous personality traits places the joke on Dave. Even the concept of his success happens at his expense; the man owns a steak-sandwich truck called Steak Me Home Tonight, but it takes off only once he has parked and converted it into a theme bar.

While making plans to visit the pop-up bar, the rest of the Happy Endings gang reflects on Dave’s earlier “stupid ideas.” (Insert cutaways to plans for boxer thongs, changing his name to Dustin, and — oof — proposing to Alex.) Withering insults are this group’s love language. Despite the razzing, married couple Jane (Eliza Coupe) and Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) stop by, flanked by pals Max (Adam Pally), Jane’s sister Alex, and Penny (Casey Wilson), who’s on a sugar-free cleanse she read about on Teri Hatcher’s Tumblr. (The show loved to invent surreal celebrity endorsements.) After greeting them with a hug, Dave asks, “Whore’s bath?” to which Penny replies with a line reading that will forever change the way you hear “Au Bon Pain.” As it turns out, “Whore’s Bath” isn’t an accusation but the gin-based cocktail special. Newly cleanse-committed Alex and Penny decline.

The next morning, Brad and Jane gasp awake after having sex dreams about Dave set to the saxophone riff from “Baker Street.” (Brad’s also features the faux male fragrance Busch, by Kyle Busch.) Penny and Alex have embraced their lifestyle changes with varying results: Airheaded Alex is thrilled that her vertical leap has improved, while Penny, in a flashback, considers climbing off Jane’s balcony. After spending time with boyfriend Grant (James Wolk), man-child Max realizes that a grown-up relationship involves adult decision-making and literal horse-holding. Oh, and Alex joins a cult run by smarmy nemesis Avi (guest star Paul Scheer).

While Jane and Brad have stopped sleeping to avoid Dave-centric dreams, Penny, who has bailed on the cleanse, struggles after experiencing them herself. (She nervously remarks that her “gross” fantasy is a romantic fireside proposal and “not at all a reference to [her] subconscious desires.” Cue the orchestral rendition of “Baker Street.”) As the trio conspire over brunch, Jane hisses that he’s “Freddy Krueger–ing [them] … with sex!” cuing an enthusiastic entrance that causes the three to scream. Why? Dave is wearing a hat and a striped sweater and waggling his fingers hello. This visual gag is Happy Endings in one GIF-able moment.

In the end, their mystery is solved: The authentic speakeasy cocktail they drank includes turpentine, and the erotic dreams are thanks to a little friendly poisoning. Except for Penny’s, since she may have real feelings for Dave. But by the time Alex dips from the cult (pre-orgy!) and snaps out of her Whore’s Bath–induced reverie soundtracked to “Baker Street,” she’s relieved — until she sees that Dave’s in bed next to her for real. Draaaaamaaa!

To me, “Cocktails & Dreams” represents everything Happy Endings had in its arsenal. From loopy gags and goofy conspiracies to real introspection and character growth, it does it all in absurdist fashion. Plus, the characters are so well drawn that while this episode airs in the back half of the second season, you could show it to any nonbeliever and they would get it. It’s all there. The leads’ interlocking histories are touched on enough for viewers to get a sense of how they initially came together and, better still, considering how they talk to and about one another, why they stayed close. When Max needs advice, he goes to Penny, crudely reminding her of their “romantic” past. As ditzy Alex tries to improve herself, she leans into it way too hard, then overcorrects by sleeping with ex-fiancé Dave. It feels like a stand-alone episode in a lot of ways, but its high jinks are a sufficient springboard for the series’s future. The rise and fall of Dave’s speakeasy doesn’t matter long term; Max breaking it off with Grant for wanting different things, Alex reconnecting with Dave, and Penny’s private realization all do.

This is possible because Happy Endings transcends sitcom expectations even as it plays by the rules. In this one episode, foundations are laid for meaningful trajectories with a breathtaking jokes-per-second ratio. There’s also plenty of slapstick that can happen only in the world of a TV show (Penny hoards food on a ceiling fan!) as well as payoff from guest star Colin Hanks playing an Entourage-y version of himself. Also, some impressively silly wordplay — like Brad referring to “my Busch,” his faux cologne Busch, by Kyle Busch, and Alex accusing Penny of stealing her My Morning Jacket jacket. Come on! What’s not to love?

So please, let devotees talk you into watching it. Let them grouse that the first season aired out of order (you can find the correct one on Reddit!) and that the third had episodes burned off two at a time for no good reason. Happy Endings is as warm as it is wicked, as charming as it is absurd, and just so funny. What else could you want from a sitcom? Except for a streaming service to revive it, which would be, to borrow a phrase, Ah-mah-zing.

Happy Endings is streaming on Hulu.

‘Cocktails & Dreams’ is Happy Endings at Its Most Potent