TV Review: ‘Happyish’

"Happyish" TV Series Review on Showtime
Courtesy of Showtime

The arrival of “Happyish” comes with a dour asterisk, with the Showtime series nearly having been derailed by the death of its original star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Steve Coogan has filled that void, in a show characterized by strong casting and a whimsical tone, but also a rather tired conceit about self-absorbed yuppies grappling with questions of mortality as they approach middle age. All told, the premiere and a subsequent episode play like a slightly less angst-ridden companion to HBO’s “Togetherness,” with a higher comedy quotient — though one that still leaves Shalom Auslander’s creation waffling somewhat charitably in the zone of “goodish.”

Showtime has opted to preview the program following the season finale of “Shameless,” in advance of its regular slot behind “Nurse Jackie” later this month. Coogan plays Thom Payne (the series has a not-so-subtle fondness for philosophers), who is introduced celebrating a 44th birthday with his wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn) and 6-year-old son. In the opening, Thom rails against Thomas Jefferson for the whole notion of “the pursuit of happiness,” complaining that bar might be a little too high, expectations-wise.

An advertising executive, Thom yearns to write a book (whatever those are, he’s reminded) and chafes against the agency’s new ownership, a pair of youthful Norwegians who like to talk about viral campaigns and social media. He also laments that the entire media is held hostage by “know-nothing teenagers,” the kind of grousing that yields reprimands from his boss, played by Bradley Whitford.

“Thinking is not as important as tweeting,” he tells Thom.

At home, the Paynes wrestle with familiar modern problems, like worrying about their kid’s passivity, or Thom experiencing side effects from Prozac that might force him to turn to another pharmaceutical aid, Viagra.

Interestingly, Thom narrates the first episode, while the microphone shifts to Lee in the second.

An author and contributor to “This American Life,” Auslander (working with director Ken Kwapis) presents an amusingly jaundiced view of the American dream, while indulging in flights of fancy that include animation. So when Thom frets about management’s notion of retiring the Keebler elves because they feel too stodgy, damned if the little guys don’t pop up to register their disapproval.

“Happyish” certainly features an impressive assortment of guest players, among them Carrie Preston as one of Thom’s co-workers, Molly Price and Andre Royo as another couple with whom the Paynes hang out, and Ellen Barkin as a headhunter. What the series still lacks, at this early stage, is any truly compelling reason to watch, or much to differentiate it from a rich trove of movies and TV about people who ostensibly appear comfortable yet are plagued by midlife crises of one form or another.

So while Coogan is quite good, one still has to wonder what different wrinkles Hoffman might have brought to the material — or, for that matter, what so attracted either of them to a program that has its moments, but beyond the profanity-laced dialogue does little to fulfill the creative potential associated with premium cable.

Auslander does bring a literary sensibility with him, in much the way Simon Rich has with FXX’s “Man Seeking Woman.” Even so, “Happyish” still feels culled from the sort of old playbook that ultimately renders it a rather trivial pursuit.

TV Review: 'Happyish'

(Series; Showtime, Sun. April 5, 10 p.m.)


Filmed in New York by In Cahoots.


Executive producers, Shalom Auslander, Ken Kwapis; co-executive producer, Alex Beattie; producer, Kathy Ciric; director, Kwapis; writer, Auslander; camera, Ben Kutchins; production designer, Henry Dunn; editor, Michael Berenbaum; music, Nathan Larson; casting, Cindy Tolan. 30 MIN.


Steve Coogan, Kathryn Hahn, Bradley Whitford, Sawyer Shipman, Carrie Preston, Molly Price, Andre Royo

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  1. Omar says:

    It’s almost as if they are trying to hard to be postmodern. Besides, who wants to watch a bunch of rich people whining about the meaning of life and blaming God , well about everything? What world do these writers live in? I wonder if they lived in a refugee camp in Africa whether they would be more happy? At t least they would have something to complain about. I’m going to go see the avengers, at least they try and make the world better!

  2. Heather says:

    I couldn’t get past the language. Without it, it would have been on basic cable or a network, so why was it there at all? I use the bleep test in cases like this — if you bleeped every instance out, what’s left, and is that a story worth telling? I’d hope that settles down in later episodes.

  3. Karen says:

    I honestly don’t think I can watch / enjoy it because honestly the whole time I would be trying to picture PSH in the lead :(

    I really like Coogan but I so loved PSH.

  4. Mark says:

    Coogan is amazing, hope the show is a hit. The Shameless lead in should be a HUGE help.

  5. Ewen says:

    We need more Saxondale.

  6. Lori says:

    Can’t wait to see the pilot.

    • Pittsburgh Mike says:

      2nd and 3rd episodes are even better. I’ve really enjoyed it so far. The humor is pretty adult, and so won’t be to everyone’s taste. I found the little animated scenes annoying at first, but I’ve gotten sorta fond of them by the 3rd episode.

      *Love* seeing Bubbles again!

    • Jeri says:

      I saw one episode and I’m hooked. It’s brilliantly written; smart, funny and serious all at once. The acting is stellar. I’m hoping this one lasts a long time.

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