The central premise of “Happy!,” drawn from the original comics, is that a winged, blue unicorn — a donkey-unicorn (a donkicorn?) — is haunting (or is it helping?) an ex-cop turned hitman named Nick (Christopher Meloni). Nick’s got some issues, like so many swaggering protagonists of bloody comic books do: he drinks, he gambles, he murders, he doesn’t call home. But that’s about to change, sort of. Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) — a furry, upbeat, anthropomorphized fantasy equine — is his new imaginary friend, and he has a Christmas mission for ol’ Nick. A creepy old man dressed as Santa Claus has been kidnapping children and imprisoning them in crates. Only Happy, and Nick, can get them out.
“Happy!” — like Happy — is a genuinely weird object, in ways that are both refreshing and disturbing. It’s hard to say what exactly is so creepy about a blue-and-pink bucktoothed flying donkey who speaks exclusively in platitudes, but he is unsettling — and so is the show, which careens between imaginative fantasy and grotesque gore with stomach-turning readiness. The second episode of the show both features a brilliant “Jerry Springer Show” fantasy sequence, where Nick finds himself silently staring at a rowdy live studio audience on the verge of turning into a riot, and an embarrassingly titillating violent confrontation, in which a criminal tells a female cop that the smell of her vagina is distracting him. It’s in the nature of comics to be over-the-top, and “Happy!’s” pulpiness will be part of its appeal for many viewers. But the overall effect of “Happy!” is an almost disgusting level of gleeful violence, laced with the bubblegum cuteness of a fuzzy creature and the pathos of a locked-up kid. Metaphorically, it resonates: Nick wouldn’t know happiness if it hit him in the face. So of course, Happy does (well, he flies into it).
Meloni, a gifted comic actor, has found a surprising sweet spot in “Happy!” as Nick, who carries a dark sense of humor around with his near-death experiences. More than once, he enters a room and kills everyone inside it. It gets so the names and faces of the so-called bad guys are interchangeably forgettable. His ex-partner Merry (Lili Mirojnick) is a more sympathetic character, and fed up with Nick’s nonsense. But it’s hard to ignore that almost every woman in the show is threatened with exploitation at some point, in a descent into tortured-male tropes that Oswalt’s Happy is supposed to countervail. And yet, that donkicorn — which lives squarely in the uncanny valley populated by Jar Jar Binks — is hard to appreciate.
It is fun that “Happy!” takes on the American Christmas mythos and finds so many subtle and outsize ways to skewer it. The cleverness of the premise is available enough, and Nick’s apparent disregard for the holiday season is part of the story’s greater significance. “Happy!” wants to be a story about a man confronting his own demons to come to terms with the worst thing of all — the cozy, nurturing joys of family, with all the cloying intimacy and vulnerability they require. But the power of the metaphor doesn’t quite come through. Instead it’s just a jumble of ghastly villains and bloody skirmishes that all feel cribbed from grittier, better stories. Meloni’s performance and the strength of the source material will keep the show afloat for interested viewers. But based on the first two episodes, it’s an acquired, specific taste.