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The Suburbanite
  • Stay Tuned: 'Happy Endings' is just for laughs

  • I recently read an Australian television columnist's thoughts on the state of the situation comedy. She argues, using the example of “The New Normal,” among others, that sitcoms are “burdened” with having a message. Instead of laughs, she suggests, there is an “agenda.” I'm not s...
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  • I recently read an Australian television columnist's thoughts on the state of the situation comedy. She argues, using the example of “The New Normal,” among others, that sitcoms are “burdened” with having a message. Instead of laughs, she suggests, there is an “agenda.” I'm not sure she's wrong about “The New Normal.” As the season wears on, it is starting to feel like a weekly and somewhat angry, diversity training session. But while many sitcoms do seem to come with a lesson on family or love or acceptance, there are still a few where the only message is: “Please laugh.” And I do. Especially if the show is “Happy Endings,” a crazy half-hour of snappy one-liners disguised as a storyline and delivered with no apparent agenda other than “we want you to have fun.”
    “Happy Endings” takes place in Chicago and follows a group of friends: Penny, Dave, Alex, Brad, Max and Jane. Jane is married to Brad and is the sister of Alex. She is a completely unlikeable type A personality, but in the hands of Eliza Coupe, you like her anyway. Elisha Cuthbert plays the dumb blonde side of Alex for maximum laughs but also gives her a sweet vulnerability. Alex dates Dave (Zachary Knighton), a goofy, insecure but loveable guy who runs a food truck called Steak Me Out Tonight. Casey Wilson's Penny is the hapless romantic who takes care of the slapstick side of things. Max, played by Adam Pally, is lazy, sarcastic and has one ridiculous job after another while Damon Wayans Jr.’s Brad is a high-strung overachiever who occasionally pulls out a ventriloquist dummy called SinBrad. 
    All these characters are situation comedy's version of “quirky,” meaning they seem relatively normal but have emotional responses that are way out of proportion and therefore funny. So shopping for a car turns Jane into a tough-as-nails negotiator, looking for an apartment to share turns Alex and Dave into a couple who tests out a dining room for how well it will accommodate chicken fights (the kind where one person carries another on their shoulders) and the onset of winter turns Max into a “bear” version of himself where he grows a shaggy beard and refuses to leave his bed for weeks.
    Could you argue that the show is about another way to understand family? Probably, but that would be missing the point, which in this case is who cares? When an episode is titled “Boyz II Menorah,” about Max and Brad working bar mitzvahs as “hype guys,” there's really nothing to do but crack up, especially when they do a send-up of a Boyz II Men video at the end. 
    While most episodes of “Happy Endings” feel like a perfect form of improvisation where the actors are confidently working off one another to earn the joke, what this series does best is mix slapstick with sharp references to popular culture. In one episode, Penny has an accident that puts her in a ridiculous cast. It's funny physical comedy but then Max, playing her caregiver, is attracted to her physical therapist. In an effort to keep him around longer, Max treats Penny like the character from the book and film “Misery.” When Penny realizes what's happening, she lets you in on the joke, accusing Max of “Miserying” her. But even if you don't get the send up of “Misery,” it's still funny to watch Max come up with different ways to keep Penny incapacitated. No lessons. Just laughs. 
    Page 2 of 2 - “Happy Endings” is on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.
    Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at staytuned@outlook.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.