Sad men


This series has been cancelled. Happyish (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) is no more. That’s your lot. It’s been and gone. What turned out to be the tenth and final episode of the Shalom Auslander-scripted gloomcom went out on Showtime in June last year, though happily all are now available to view on Sky catch-up. Happyish was axed. Which is a more melodramatic way of saying that the broadcaster declined to recommission it, which is in the broadcaster’s gift. Even cable is cut-throat. In the strong language of the show itself, “F— you, Showtime.”


It had a troubled birth. A show about a depressed 44-year-old advertising executive who’s feeling his age in an increasingly youth-skewed industry, it was written by Auslander (a David Sedaris-like author and humorist) with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. He’d agreed to do it, and a pilot was filmed, but then he died. Which is a very Happyish thing to do. Steve Coogan was drafted in, and the character remained the same, except he was now an expat Brit with one of those frankly irksome, bendy transatlantic accents, which Coogan is very good at, as it’s one I think he slips into in real life as soon as he lands at LAX. (We’re witnessing John Oliver develop one before our very ears on Last Week Tonight.)  The key word here – and it’s a word that’s said A LOT in Happyish – is “asshole.” It’s pronounced as if it were a hole belonging to an ass, not to an arse. Asshole.

The first episode begins as the single season means to go on, with Coogan’s character, Thom Payne (geddit) saying “Fuck you!” to Thomas Jefferson, and raising the finger to camera. In a subsequent episode he does the same to God. It’s this kind of metatextual, Billy Liar-ish fantasy element that makes Happyish Marmite; Payne regularly consults animated characters from adverts, and in one episode he and his wife Lee (Katherine Hahn) join Moses (a Richard Kind cameo) in the Promised Land. I’m all for it, and am currently racing through the one and only season, wishing there were more, but knowing there isn’t, which is an odd feeling. (I remember watching the first episode of David E Kelley medical drama Monday Mornings, enjoying it, then reading that it had been cancelled by TNT after one season, and I instantly lost the will to carry on watching it. It’s like befriending someone on death row)


Happyish is an “authored” sitcom, the kind of thing we do well over here, and it’s clear that the entire cast are speaking for Auslander, whether old, young, black, white, Jewish, not Jewish, American or English. Again, I don’t mind that. I love mithering, neurotic Jewish humour. The cast is tip-tip, with roles for Ellen Barkin as a cougarish headhunter, Andre Royo (Bubbles!) as Payne’s best pal, Carrie Preston as an agency creative and Bradley Whitford, particularly enjoyable as Payne’s alcoholic, colic fiftysomething boss (I think – they seem to be equals, but not). But you could take a line from any character except perhaps the Paynes’ son, and give it to any other character. Hahn manages to find her own brand with a force-of-nature performance. While Coogan (likeable no matter how grey the cloud above his head gets) is essentially depressed and cynically fatalistic the whole time, she has her art and grabs moments of free-spirited joy, which are then crushed by routine and parenthood and reality. It basically supplants Mad Men to the 21st century of Silicon Valley, throwing in viral marketing, social media and Google, and relocating its central couple to bucolic, organic but snowbound Woodstock, where Lee can nurture her utopian, anti-consumerist dream of not buying an iPhone. (She is the anti-Betty.)


If you look at its ratings on Showtime, they go from 0.4 million to 0.2 million. I don’t think this is even workable on a cable network. (The Affair, albeit much more mainstream, tips 1 million on Showtime; Ray Donovan does 1.5 million; the more comparable Episodes only gets 0.5 but it’s been steady for four seasons. Meanwhile, Mad Men was getting at least 2 million on AMC.) I’m sad – if not as sad as Thom Payne – that my enjoyment of Happyish will be cruelly finite (I have three episodes to go and am trying to savour them), but TV is cruel. Fuck you, TV!



14 thoughts on “Sad men

  1. I never checked this out. It was one of those things about which I said “I’ll get to it eventually” (because, you might have heard, there’s TOO MUCH TV!). Then before I knew it the cancellation was announced and that made me scratch it off my list. Your passionate endorsement makes me want to put it back on the list.

    By the way, last night I watched the season finale of Showtime’s new drama series Billions. Damn, that was brilliant. I hope you watch it when it comes to Sky Atlantic in May. The pilot was the weakest of the twelve episodes. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t take to it immediately. Like The Knick, you may need to give it some time.


    • Can’t wait for Billions in May. Right, off to record the last ever Telly Addict, which I hope you enjoy tomorrow. I think it may run a little long … (at last count I had almost 50 clips!)


      • Really nice final TA, there was some intricate cutting-and-splicing that went into that one. I don’t have any of the subscription channels or services but as it is your ultimate recommendation from the last few years (and what a selection to choose from) then I will get the boxset for the Leftovers when it ends after the third series. Thanks for all of the other suggestions over the years, and those to come on this blog.


  2. Steve Coogan… The man with a thousand voices. One of the greatest impressionists of our times… Yet can’t say ‘ass’ in a generic US accent.


    • He’s cleverer than we can ever know. He’s saying it in the precise accent of a Mancunian who has been on the east coast of American for precisely the number of years his character has been there, and who works in the advertising industry.


  3. It’s an interesting (often vexing) question about what gets recommissioned and what doesn’t. I’ve not seen Happyish but presumably it was the kind of series set up to run to more than one, with potential for continuing storylines, as opposed to the kind of thing that is supposed to be a story that stops at the end of that series (for instance, the Honourable Woman). Of course, not every programme like that is worth recommissioning (some just aren’t good enough), but it is particularly frustrating when one that is good enough gets dropped and then another that really should end at the one series gets artificially teased out to further series (I’m looking at you ‘The Fall’, ‘Homeland’, etc). Always thought it a shame that Rubicon didn’t get more of a chance.


  4. I just read that Tom Hiddleston has expressly stated that he will not be in a second series of The Night Manager, as he’d viewed it as a finite project, based on a book with an ending. I hope this is true. (He can, frankly, call whatever shots he likes.) I didn’t even much like the show, but those massive ratings made talk of a second series tragically inevitable. But without Tom, there’s less of a franchisable brand. (The Honourable Woman, like Hugo Blick’s other fabulous series, The Shadow Line, was clearly designed as a one-off, and there’s something noble about that.)


    • Andrew, I caught HAPPYish last year when it came out and was hoping for some Coogan miserableist “Trip” magic. Alas, I found him and the whole thing irritatingly irksome. The accent. The dialogue. The animated “characters”.

      To borrow another Americanism, it really did grind my gears.

      BTW I gave up on VINYL after three episodes. Too ludicrous despite Bobby’s scene chewing antics. And so, it now appears, has Terence Winter. The showrunner and co-creator has left the building.

      Looking forward to tomorrow’s TELLY ADDICT FINALE!


      • I gave Vinyl a couple more episodes than you, but also gave up. I can’t believe I’m saying that about a Terence Winter drama on HBO. I’d like to know more about him walking.


      • Interesting. I guess this is what happens when, even as someone as eminent as Winter, you sign up to someone else’s long-gestated project. You’re the first to leave.


      • Happens more than you think. BTW credit for that story must go to the missus who reads the “trades” cos she’s a TV Producer here in NYC.

        She just finished a pilot called MODEL WOMAN (provisional title). Another 70s period piece…and back soon to SNEAKY PETE for Amazon. The pilot is availabe to watch on Prime (if you pay for it of course!)

        Worth checking out. It has a THE RICHES flavour about it – the long forgotten Eddie Izzard vehicle from a few years back…


  5. Really enjoyed this show. LOVED the wife. Just looked it up after watching episode 1 of Divorce as an example of a more successful offbeat comedy. I thought it would only mature and get better. TV is indeed a cruel place especially for comedy which often needs a few season the get the rhythms right.


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