52 Shows, 52 Weeks: #22 Happy Endings

This show was, for me, the biggest surprise of the 2010-2011 TV season. Andy and I watched it accidentally the night it premiered because we had just canceled our cable/DVR service and therefore didn’t have any idea when our shows were on.  We thought we were going to watch Modern Family but ended up watching two episodes of Happy Endings.

I was already a fan of Casey Wilson from her short stint on Saturday Night Live, but I didn’t have any experience with the other cast members.  With the plethora of new TV shows competing for my attention, I almost never watch something that doesn’t feature an actor I liked on something else or a creator who has previously made a show I liked.   Even though I liked Casey Wilson on SNL, she didn’t make a big enough impression on me to draw me to the show, which on paper is pretty much a 2011 version (meaning there is a gay character and a black guy) of Friends set in Chicago.

It’s not as if Friends is a bad model.  Calling Happy Endings the new Friends is not an insult.  Friends was very popular in its day and it remains one of my favorite shows.  The diversity and Chicago-ness that Happy Endings brings to the formula only improves it.

But a familiar premise and a unknown cast aren’t what TV legends are made of.  Plus, Happy Endings made a risky move by casting two actresses who vaguely physically resemble each other.  Elisha Cuthbert and Eliza Coupe, who play Alex and Jane respectively, both have blonde hair and similar body types.  It took about an episode and a half before I could tell them apart.  Eventually, I noticed that Jane has crazy eyes and that became my way of remembering who is who.

With all these potential drawbacks, Happy Endings feels like a small miracle.  You see, it’s funny.  The actors have comedic chemistry.  They play off each other.  This is a reason why the passing resemblance between Elisha Cuthbert and Eliza Coupe was a risk worth taking for the show.  Chemistry is more important than diversity of hair color.  Writing is important, too, and when these characters tease each other like actual friends, I can’t tell if it’s the writing or the chemistry that makes it work.

Despite the somewhat tired premise—six similarly-aged friends (three ladies, three dudes) figuring out life and love in the city—Happy Endings feels fresh.  Maybe it’s the gay character for whom being gay isn’t his defining trait.  Even though there are more LGB (let’s not even pretend about the T) characters on TV than ever before, there is still room for more, and I like that Happy Endings’ Max was gay from the very beginning, came out to his parents in a non-event in like the fourth or fifth episode, and is basically the antithesis of Jack McFarland. Here he is giving hipster lessons to Penny:

I can’t get over how furtively this show sneaked up on me. The first time Jane referred to her “va-jane-a” or Penny said “uh-mah-zing,” I rolled my eyes, and then that stuff grew on me. Now I say “uh-mah-zing” myself and use the “va-jane-a” thing to explain why this show is funny. This is what synched it for Andy: