In their breakout TV roles, Damon Wayans Jr. (“Happy Endings”) and Amber Stevens West (“The Carmichael Show”) proved themselves to be perfect sitcom utility players. Both were tasked at times with lending grounding reality to ensemble series that only just managed to keep their balance without spiraling into mania, and both displayed their own amiable willingness to indulge and heighten their respective show’s quirk.
What a shame, then, that two such talented performers are marooned on CBS’s “Happy Together,” a show whose title says it all; unlike even most of CBS’s prime-time comedy slate, it fundamentally lacks a point-of-view or anything that help it break free from the generic—even as its stars struggle against a tide bearing them back to the bygone era where this show’s jokes seem to have originated. A running joke in “Happy Together’s” pilot revolves around our central couple’s attempt to record an outgoing message on their landline answering machine; the rest is only slightly more up-to-date.
Wayans’s Jake is an accountant semi-happily stuck in routine with his wife, Stevens West’s Claire; it’s a life of Toaster Strudels and weekend nights on the couch blazing through the DVR. Through plot contrivances, Jake’s client, a rock star (Felix Mallard) modeled on executive producer Harry Styles, comes to live with the couple. Through days on the couch, he gains stability from them, and through wild nighs out, they gain spontaneity from him—or so the thinking goes.
Perhaps it’s inescapable, given the script, that our central couple would be quite so much more charismatic than the interloper—after all, they’re the ones with whom we spend most of the show’s running time, so they had better be engaging on their own merits. But it’s odd, and works against the show’s conceit, just how easier it is to spend time with Jake and Claire, for all the old-married-couple shtick the show throws their way, than it is to spend time with Mallard’s Cooper, who in the pilot evinces little of the compelling charisma most successful musicians yield like a weapon. Stevens West and Wayans are both young and fun-to-watch, and do their oddball-couple routine without Cooper better than they do the script’s overwrought dithering over whether or not they’re washed-up.
Ultimately, it’s not really clear who “Happy Together” is for. Young Harry Styles fans aren’t necessarily likely to tune into a broadcast sitcom, and thirtysomething married couples on the precipice of being washed up themselves are bound to feel a bit hectored by this show, which insists in increasingly shrill terms that Jake and Claire have been needing to shake their lives up even as they had seemed perfectly, well, happy together. Perhaps it’s for anyone who misses the days when all a sitcom needed was a vague premise to get a shot on the air—but even they’d have to admit that Wayans and Stevens West’s talent, pushing up hard against the limits imposed by the pilot’s script, deserves better.
Comedy, CBS. (One episode screened for review.) Mon., Oct. 1, 8:30 p.m. E.T.
Executive Producers: Austen Earl, Tim McAuliffe, Ben Winston, Harry Styles, Michael Rotenberg, Jonathan Berry
Cast: Damon Wayans Jr., Amber Stevens West, Felix Mallard, Stephnie Weir, Victor Williams, Chris Parnell