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Showtime’s smug dark comedy 'HAPPYish' is anything but

There’s debate about what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when advocating “the pursuit of happiness” along with life and liberty.

The answer won’t be found in Showtime’s dark comedy “HAPPYish,” an almost depressing affair by any measure.

However, the good name of one of founding fathers is subject to a tirade during the voiceover monologue of the first episode of “HAPPYish” by none other than the show’s protagonist, middle-aged advertising executive Thom Payne (British comedian Steve Coogan).

Dissatisfied with his professional life at a New York ad agency, Thom expresses his frustration that Jefferson has kept us guessing at the meaning of happiness. Thom’s rant ends with a profane insult to Jefferson, followed by flipping his middle finger.

The opening monologue of discontent is soon followed by Thom’s 44th birthday party, where Thom’s wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn), who happens to be a neurotic Jew and wants everyone to know it, proves to be as profane and foul-mouthed as her husband.

The birthday party also involves conversation with another couple equally annoying as the Paynes, where the topic of discussion revolves around surgical procedures that, well, involve the tightening of certain genital parts that are not worthy of further elucidation.

Within minutes, “HAPPYish” has delved into a range of sexual topics that might even be a bit too much for the porn films cranked out at private homes in the San Fernando Valley.

Yeah, if it’s not already clear, this new half-series ranks along with “Shameless” as unsuitable for family viewing.

About 10 minutes into the show, after commuting into the city by train, Thom is off to work at his office where he exclaims “I work for Satan” and then slams “Mad Men” and claims that there is nothing cool or interesting about advertising.

It gets even worse when the agency’s executive creative director Jonathan (Bradley Whitford) marvels at the marketing power of Al Qaeda, considering that they were unknown prior to 9/11. Then he expresses amazement how ISIS has expanded the market.

Thom informs his creative boss that Al Qaeda is not a brand, it’s a terrorist organization. And Jonathan glibly replies that everything is a brand. This observation is soon followed by Jonathan’s assertion that “thinking is not as important as tweeting.”

That Thom Payne despises the industry in which he has toiled for twenty years bubbles to the surface in full angst-ridden splendor when his agency’s fortunes are put in the hands of Gustav and Gottfrid, a pair of platitude-spouting Swedish millennials who are basically clueless about anything other than social media.

Truth be told, I found it rather difficult to make it through the first half-hour episode. Nothing would surprise me more than if more than half the audience for “HAPPYish” would tune out altogether before the end of thirty minutes.

For the sake of duty, and perhaps a slightly perverse interest or foolish notion to see if things could improve, I hung in for episode two, not fully realizing that my initial impression that the unlikable nature of the characters was not going to somehow magically change.

Oh no, it only gets worse. The high-strung Lee, who dabbles in artistic endeavors inspired loosely by Marc Chagall, has a complete meltdown after picking up a package sent by her mother as a gift to her grandson. We are treated to the unenviable spectacle of Lee having imaginary conversations with her meddling mother.

To his credit, despite having to come off as a miserable self-loathing misanthrope and still saddled with spewing a lot of drek, Steve Coogan manages to deliver a few moments of comic relief. One of his better moments is when he gets worked up about the absurdity of a Pepto-Bismol ad that suggests people should follow the product on Twitter.

Despite his best efforts, Coogan still can’t make his character likable or admirable in any real sense. But then none of talented actors, from Kathryn Hahn to Bradley Whitford, or even to Ellen Barkin as a hardened executive headhunter, is able to come across as an appealing person of rooting interest to the viewers.

The smug millennial workforce doesn’t come off any better than their elders at the agency. It’s a groan-worthy moment when one of them, pitching new ideas for Coke, has a presentation entitled “How do we sell happiness in the Age of Disillusionment?” A good question that lacks an answer!

“HAPPYish” was originally intended to be a starring vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman. His unfortunate shuffling off this mortal coil can only leave us wondering if this talented actor would have brought a different tone and tenor to this show, though it would not seem likely if he had to read the same dreadful lines.

The pursuit of happiness, at least for television viewers for the most part, would require tuning out of “HAPPYish” not more than a couple of minutes into the first episode.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

 

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