“HAPPYish,” the bitterly funny new sitcom from pay-cable outlet Showtime, begins with star Steve Coogan delivering a foul-mouthed critique of Thomas Jefferson. “Fuck you, Thomas Jefferson,” concludes Coogan at the end of his rant, flipping our long-dead third president the bird. His problem with the founding father? That line from the Declaration of Independence about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What is happiness anyway? A new BMW? A thousand Facebook followers? These days, we’re all trying to figure it out.
In “HAPPYish” Coogan—a well-known British comedian—plays successful, middle-aged advertising executive Thom Payne. Thom thinks he’s happy. He’s got every right to be. He has an attractive wife (Kathryn Hahn from “Crossing Jordan” and “Parks and Recreation”), a cute kid, smart friends and a high-paying job. But at age 44 he’s starting to realize he’s no longer a hip, young Turk. He’s confounded by social media, concerned about things like Alzheimer’s and wondering if he should have lived his life differently. “Fuck ‘Mad Men’,” he announces at one point. “There’s nothing cool about advertising.”
One day, Thom goes into work and finds that the advertising firm’s ownership is now in the hands of a couple internet-loving, viral-marketing twentysomethings. Suddenly, his quiet, middle-aged angst starts to erupt. Should he quit? Should he go write a book (whatever those are)? Should he go full-on Howard Beale in Network (a reference no one under 40 will get)? Would Thom really be happier doing something else, or has he—as a friend predicts—already hit his “joy ceiling”?
“HAPPYish” is a raunchy, tell-it-like-it-is comedy. (A horribly hilarious sequence in the pilot episode involving the Keebler Elves demonstrates just how far the show is willing to go for laughs.) But it’s also a semiserious exploration of our disposable society (which applies to people as well as shaving razors). Dark and highly satirical, “HAPPYish” springs from the mind of author, essayist and “This American Life” contributor Shalom Auslander (Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir). “HAPPYish” originally went into development a few years ago with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role. That fell apart for obvious reasons. But the idea was eventually recycled with Coogan in the cast. Coogan (“I’m Alan Partridge,” Tropic Thunder, The Trip) is a bit of genius when it comes to acerbic comedy. Here, he delicately toes the line between sympathetic protagonist and outraged misanthrope. Auslander’s cleverly written barbs give Coogan plenty to work with. “It’s Lord of the Flies out there,” he grouses in voice-over. “And everyone over 18 is Piggy.”
Supporting roles from heavyweights like Bradley Whitford and Ellen Barkin give the show a distinct, off-network feel. A steady stream of curse words also reminds us we’re not in broadcast TV land. Is that enough for the long haul?
The idea of self-absorbed yuppies grappling with their own mortality would seem rather played out in today’s television landscape. But “HAPPYish” tackles it with gusto. Auslander’s sharp, literary sensibility gives the show a particular flavor lacking in your run-of-the-mill sitcoms. If the series finds a compelling narrative direction to complement its jaundiced sense of humor, “HAPPYish” will make for painful yet familiar viewing for audiences of a certain age.