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.