I just finished Showtime’s short-lived satirical comedy series Happyish, which starred Steve Coogan as 40-something, NYC ad man Thom Payne. Thoroughly misanthropic, Happyish was the brainchild of showrunner and writer Shalom Auslander. The show was originally slated to have the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Payne, but after Hoffman’s untimely death in February 2014, the role went to Coogan, whom I’m a huge fan of.
A Showtime tagline for the show reads:
Thom Payne is a 44 year-old man whose world is thrown into disarray when his 25 year-old “wunderkind” boss arrives, saying things like “digital,” “social” and “viral.” Is he in need of a “rebranding,” or does he just have a “low joy ceiling?” Maybe pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand? Maybe, after 44 years on this ludicrous planet, settling for happyish is the best one can expect.
Another Showtime promotional describes the show’s pilot episode thusly:
On his birthday, Thom Payne gets the gift of insignificance and also a new boss. He suspects his ED pills are interfering with his anti-depressants, leaving him with neither happiness nor… happiness. In a culture that reveres youth – a culture he helped create – Thom needs to figure out what his purpose is now that he’s halfway to death and nobody cares what he thinks. Because in a world where any Kardashian is trending up, perhaps the wise among us would heartily embrace trending down.
As an IMDB commenter notes: “The show does a great job capturing that underlying drama of being in your 40’s and working for and with twenty year olds.”
As others have said, I wanted to like this show.
It had a smart take on the perversions of corporate America, the psychology of advertising, and even more perverse way in which such corporate ‘values’ work their way into Millennials’ norms of socialization (e.g., social-media parlance and dynamics.)
It had smart references to cultural giants, showcasing Auslander’s prodigious intellect. The show’s 10 episode, for example, all written by Auslander, had the following titles, with the respective episodes making references to the names in the respective title:
- Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Dr. Alois Alzheimer
- Starring Marc Chagall, Abuela and Adolf Hitler
- Starring Vladimir Nabokov, Hippocrates and God
- Starring Sigmund Freud, Charles Bukowski and Seven Billion Assholes
- Starring Josey Wales, Jesus Christ and The New York Times
- Starring Helen Keller, Moses and Lenny Bruce
- Starring David Ogilvy, Anton Chekhov and Gluten Enteropathy
- Starring Rene Descartes, Adweek and HRH The Princess of Arendelle
- Starring Mr. Mike, Joseph McCarthy and Alfred Bernhard Nobel
- Starring Christopher Hitchens, Philip Larkin and Josef Stalin
Through the workplace travails of Thom Payne (e.g., Tom Paine, the 18th century author of Common Sense), someone increasingly questioning how he’s been spending his life (trying to convince people to buy Coca-Cola, etc.) the show would occasionally foray into Thom’s daydream sequences, which would skewer a real-life corporate brand, such as this sequence when Thom’s ad agency wants to ‘update’ the Keebler elves mascots with hoped-for viral marketing involving real-life human elves:
What held the show back, however was the over-the-top, gratuitous use of profanity — I mean, really uncomfortable use of the most vile profanity you can imagine — and a general problem with the show’s characters not really being all that sympathetic.
In a smart interview about the show, Coogan notes: “The People Who Like It, Love It. The People Who Don’t, Don’t Understand It”. I think it was less of problem of people not understanding it — I for one, did — but the elements just didn’t add up into an effective whole.
Of the show’s failure to get picked up for a second season, Adam Buckman writes:
The problem with “Happyish” had more to do with other elements — particularly the loathsome characters it presented — than its examination about how young whippersnappers preaching the gospel of social media and making everyone over the age of 29 feel irrelevant — are taking over the ad industry.
Of Kathryn Hahn’s character (who played Coogan’s wife), and the show’s gratuitous use of profanity, I agree with Buckman, who writes:
The wife character was particularly atrocious — an f-word spewing, ill-tempered shrew whose appearances on screen were what you might call the opposite of clickbait — “unclickbait,” which in TV parlance means “change the channel to something else as fast as you can.”…
If “Happyish” proved anything, it’s that it’s possible — even in today’s permissive environment — for TV writers to go too far with the casual tossing around of f-words and other language meant to identify characters as “modern” types for whom salty (to say the least) language is no big deal. Emanating from the mouths of the “Happyish” characters, however, the language often felt gratuitous. A viewer watching this show at home was made to feel bombarded by people most of us would cross a street to avoid.
I would argue that a partial cause of the show’s failure is Auslander‘s extraordinarily Jewish upbringing, and how this led to an out-of-step incommensurability with a current, still prevalent (but quickly fading), WASP America. From s Wikipedia’s page on Auslander:
He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Monsey, New York where he describes himself as having been “raised like a veal”, a reference to his strict religious upbringing… His writing style is notable for its Jewish perspective, existentialist themes and black humor.
Auslander has published a collection of short stories, Beware of God (March 2006) and a memoir, Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir (October 2007). His work, often confronting his Orthodox Jewish background, has been featured on Public Radio International’s This American Life and in The New Yorker. He has also written for Esquire Magazine, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, The New York Times and many others. He was a finalist for the 2003–2004 Koret Jewish Book Award for “Young Writer on Jewish Themes.”
In “Foreskin’s Lament,” Auslander wrote of his mother, “who was the belle of the misery ball,” and his father, who was angry and uncommunicative. As a child, he went through the house and destroyed all the pornography he found. As an adult, he rebelled against his Orthodox Jewish upbringing.
In January 2012, Auslander published his first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, a finalist for the 2013 Thurber Prize, which envisions a homeowner in upstate New York finding an elderly and foul-mouthed Anne Frank hiding in his attic. It won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize (2013).
While it turned out that Auslander thoroughly rejected his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Happyish’s excesses became a sort of temper tantrum therapy against his family’s Jewish clannishness, messianism, and ‘purity’.
As such, while Happyish might have been a resonant critique of modernity, it instead turned into Auslander’s newfound ability to use all the swear words his parents forbid him from uttering and to trangress against every sacred institution and tradition still left breathing in the 21st century West.