Meet Thom Payne (Steve Coogan). He’s just turned 44. He feels old. He has a wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and a kid, Julius (Sawyer Shipman), and a suburban house and the pressure of keeping them all afloat. He hates his job, and he fears for it. He wonders if this is all there is. He–
Oh, you’ve already met? Sure; you’ve met one version of him or another–middle-aged, ennui-ridden, losing a step to the advancing hordes of The Youngs–in numerous cable dramas and comedies and dramedies. Sometimes he sells crystal meth, sometimes he does standup. In Showtime’s Happyish (premieres April 26), he works for an advertising agency–no, not that one–and his first campaign is to sell you on the urgency of his particular set of First World problems.
Thom knows he has it good by present-day standards: he pulls in a big income, takes a morning train from the affluent suburb of Woodstock, N.Y. It doesn’t feel enough, though; he lives in a society where the goal, created in part by his own profession is “happiness,” something more than mere contentment. He doesn’t know what that is, but he’s pretty sure he’s not feeling it.
In the mid-20th-century, Don Draper’s day, Thom would at least have the rest of his working life to stew in comfortable angst. But Thom lives in the post-security era. His agency has been taken over by two young Swedes, spouting clichés about youth and disruption and change. They want, for instance, to establish a social-media presence for their clients, Keebler. Unable to contain himself, Thom asks why you need that kind of intimacy for every cookie or digestive-aid product: “Who the f— wants to follow Pepto-Bismol on Twitter?” It’s a clever outburst, but, Thom is learning, clever’s stock is dropping, and his along with it.
Happyish is created by novelist and memoirist Shalom Auslander, and a little like FX’s Man Seeking Woman (born of short stories by Simon Rich), it often seems like it might work better on the page than the screen. It’s not badly written at all; there are tour de force bursts of monologue and magma blasts of white-collar rage. But it is very written, very writerly; the only thing organic in this high-end suburb is the Whole Foods. Over and over, characters dispense perfectly crafted aphorisms to ensure you never forget precisely what the show is about.
“It’s Lord of the Flies out there, and everyone over 18 is Piggy,” Thom tells us. Says his corporate-headhunter pal Dani (Ellen Barkin), “It doesn’t matter how many cars you have, how big your house is, or how much pussy you get–you hit your joy ceiling and you’re done.” (Did I mention the show is called Happyish?) Thom’s boss Jonathan (Bradley Whitford) is practically a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of middle-aged-male gloom: These days, he laments, “thinking’s not as important as tweeting.” And: “God’s a brand, and the brand’s in trouble.” And: “We’ve reached Peak America. We’re sitting in a puddle of was.” But we’re still the world’s leading exporter of midlife crises!
Happyish has a dark backstory of its own; it was meant to star the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and shot a pilot with him before his untimely death. The new version makes a nod to its British star–there’s an allusion to his “adopted” country in his opening rant on “the pursuit of happiness”–but it doesn’t give the acerbic Mancunian actor more of an outsider’s perspective on the American pop culture he toils in. Coogan tears beautifully into Thom’s twitchy, angry sarcasm, and he can do melancholy (see The Trip), but I have to wonder if Hoffman would have brought Thom a needed soulfulness.
Performances aren’t the show’s problem, though. It’s that we’ve seen so much of this before, like the manic reliance on voiceover and fantasy sequences. The most remarkable thing about the latter is that many use characters from actual ad campaigns to R-rated effect. They range from amusing to excruciating–you will never see the Keebler hollow tree again after the pilot–but it leaves the dispiriting feeling that this subversion is just another form of marketing.
At one point, Happyish acknowledges that it’s walking in past TV series’ loafers; “F— Mad Men,” Thom says, “Nothing about advertising is cool.” It’s an unfortunate contrast that Happyish premieres a week after a Mad Men episode, “The Forecast,” that more richly explored themes of youth vs. age and contentment vs. fulfillment (and even used a cookie advertising campaign to do it). There are signs of promise, as in the second episode, when Lee works through unresolved issue with her mother via a Jewish-guilt fantasy version of Dora the Explorer. But it squanders them with “We care why?” moments such as Thom imagining himself as Samuel Beckett, never writing his great works because of the pressures of paying the monthly nut on his suburban lifestyle.
Ultimately, Happyish shares Thom’s problem: it’s smart, it’s well-read and shows talent, and once that would have been enough, in an earlier age when the market allowed in less competition. Now it’s a buyer’s market for the anomie Happyish is selling; there are too many other diverse competing voices out there for a series to grab you simply by pointing out that a middle-aged professional with ample assets and options might kinda wish he were writing a novel instead.
It is, maybe, not fair to judge a series by its themes and its characters’ demographics. As Roger Ebert said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” But for all its rhetorical flourishes, Happyish isn’t about its well-covered themes in any interesting way. Thom, in the end, is one more guy who’s mistaken his wants for needs–which in the end, is your best proof that advertising really does work.