For the no longer nascent group of people who take sitcoms very seriously, declaring the moment’s best is an incessant burden. This is partly what makes Happy Endings so frustrating – it’s super hilarious but doesn’t feel like the best. As a wildly funny show without perspective, it doesn’t feel like anything. It’s the proprietor of television’s most enjoyable thirty minutes but is that enough? Can a show be television’s best sitcom without having a point-of-view?
This doesn’t mean Happy Endings is like, former best sitcom title-holder, Seinfeld, a show about nothing. Happy Endings is just a show not about anything. Where Seinfeld played with existential and nihilistic themes and challenged viewers to not care about its characters, Happy Endings presents pseudo-realistic issues with just enough conflict to push the episode forward while everyone cracks wise. Similarly, Happy Endings might employ some pretty inconsequential story arcs but unlike Seinfeld or The Office there is never an implicit commentary on how unimportant their lives are because there is never a commentary on anything.
The “well, it’s just a modern version of Friends” argument doesn’t really hold up either. The parallels are obvious, and the show itself has alluded to it, but Friends was about friends and friendship – Happy Endings is its characters saying funny things to each other while happening to be friends. For ten seasons, Friends showed how friends grow to become your surrogate family, partly by negatively portraying the characters’ actual families. Happy Endings has done the opposite; generally, all the parents have been terrific from Penny’s ebullient mom to Max’s instantly accepting parents. All of Friends’ Gen-X parental issues simply don’t apply to Happy Endings’ Gen-Y idealism.
Instead of Friends, creator David Caspe was trying to make a show about his friends. He admitted as much in an interview before this season: “You know, I was just sort of trying to make a show that had to do with my group of friends or maybe how they talk.” Happy Endings was Caspe’s first ever pitch, which explains why the premise is basically the show every single person thinks about writing. His hook was to build the series around one of the show’s friends being left at the altar by another one of the friends, allowing them document how everyone choses sides. This fundamental conflict, the supposed drive for the show’s being, was abandoned very quickly because it distracted from the funny. The sense is Caspe – along with Jonathan Groff (How I Met Your Mother, Late Night with Conan O’Brien) who was brought on to “co” showrun – assembled a great writing staff, casted a terrific cast, and let them all just run the asylum. So with the intended fundamental conflict tossed aside, the writers instead focused on what comedy writers want to do most, write jokes. And they wrote and write greats jokes – better jokes than basically every other show’s jokes – and those jokes started eating up the time that might have been spent having something matter.
Last week Max (Adam Pally) summarized the episode’s conflict by boasting with a smile and an eyebrow raise that might as well have been a wink, “You know that I love low-stakes, classic 80’s sitcom danger.” That joke both set-up the farcical episode that followed and revealed a lot about the people behind the show. Happy Endings, if it’s about anything, is about what happens when kids who grow up always wanting to write for a sitcom get to write for a sitcom. This doesn’t mean it’s about how we use popular culture to relate to one another, like Community is; no, Happy Endings is the culmination of sitcoms being a respected genre and comedy being a respected career path. Instead of failed screenwriters or novelists populating the writer’s room, Happy Endings employs the type of person who grew up reciting the names of the Simpsons writing staff like they were Yankees starting lineup.
And is that so bad? Sitcoms are supposed to be funny, first and foremost, so the show with the funniest funny parts has a very convincing case for being the best. Or do the little moments of meaning that don’t add much in the short run, actually in the long run elevate the show’s stakes and in turn make the viewer laugh harder? Happy Endings doesn’t let you compare, as it is wholly itself in its joke-commitment – a fact that contributes significantly to why the show is so great. The season finale airs tonight at 9:30 and, who knows, there might be a big cliffhanger that alludes to some future drama or maybe (probably) the episode will fade out to a shot of the gang giggling at all their gaffs and hijinks. I’m really looking forward to either.