Just be funny: On why Happy Endings is the new Friends and how it’s hard to express that

One of the primary byproducts of today’s brand of online television criticism is the things that get left behind. Of course, there are literally thousands of programs airing right now that aren’t covered by the great, popular critics. There is only so much time in the day and clearly, television criticism has its aims, has its target audiences and has its comfortable rhythms. I’m not here to discuss whether or not those aims, targets or rhythms are right or wrong (though you should check out Ryan McGee’s solid piece that does address those things), but I have been thinking* about how specific styles of criticism leave certain kinds of current television comedies on the sidelines a bit.

*Again, sort of spurred on by a Ryan McGee piece, this time in coproduction with Myles McNutt. Check out their two-part series on writing about television comedy. Right now.

Writing about comedies like Community, Louie and even Parks and Recreation is actually really easy for me to do. Deconstructing and discussing themes, character development and the like is, for someone with an academic background, easy and fun. There’s a reason that the series I write about the most here on the site is Community. Obviously it’s my favorite currently-airing series, but it also has a lot of proverbial meat on its bones that I can pick at, rummage through and consume each week. There’s simply a lot of material there for me to work with, no matter what kind of episode the series deploys on any given week (for example, I think last week’s straight-forward episode led to my longest review of the season).

However, because much of today’s television criticism – well, at least the really good kind – works the best when paired with series that call out for detailed deconstruction, there are so many comedies that get left behind for those of us who prefer to write more than summaries of plots and lists of jokes. This is an unfortunate consequence of a certain style of writing and it is especially detrimental to a series like ABC’s Happy Endings. You know, because Happy Endings happens to be the funniest comedy on television right now.

Let me clarify that statement before you Human Beings or Pawnee lovers kill me. Community is still the most thematically complex comedy, Parks and Recreation is the warmest, most character-focused and Louie is certainly the deepest, darkest and most innovative. But if we’re talking about straight-up laughs derived from hilarious one-liners and novel cutaway gag, Happy Endings is currently the champion. It has the title belt, if you will. Last night’s episode “The Code War” had me in stiches countless times thanks to an overflowing amount of puns, one-liners and cutaway bits. The Halloween episode was better, but “Code War” is definitely the funniest episode of the season.

Ever since Friends came on the air, television networks have been trying their hardest to recreate its magic and nearly all of the series about “young people in different stages of relationships” or “young people just hanging out” have been failures. I used to think that How I Met Your Mother was the heir apparent to Friends, but it’s become too consumed with its own history and mythology to deliver many of the simple pleasures that made Friends so enjoyable, even in its later, problematic seasons.

Last season randomly became the time that networks tried to recreate that Friends magic all at once. Much has been made about this burst of Friends clones and just as much has been made about Happy Endings being the last to debut* and the only one to actually survive while Better With You, Perfect Couples, Traffic Light and Mad Love fell by the wayside. Although I think Perfect Couples and Traffic Light were solid third-tier comedies, it quickly became apparent that Happy Endings was much better than all of them.

*I guess it wasn’t *officially* the last to air. NBC burned off Friends With Benefits in the summer.

In season two, Happy Endings has only improved and although this may sound blasphemous, it’s quickly starting to earn any comparisons we might make to Friends. Though Friends is often first and foremost remembered for its romantic entanglements and slew of guest stars, the series worked so well in those early years because it was damn funny and in a simple sort of way.  Friends was very modern and well-paced. Happy Endings is basically its 21st century, postmodern, quicker, zippier, slightly edgier (only slightly though) brethren. Happy Endings is the younger sibling that watched its older sibling Friends dominate high school then keyed into those same things and updated them just enough once it became an upperclassman itself. Friends had a stronger grasp on its characters at this stage, but Happy Endings is getting there and makes up for any limitations with major LOL-worthy jokes.*

*On a related note, I’d love to see someone try to a “Classic” watch of Friends today, just to view how they’d handle writing about the series on a weekly basis. Taking on Cheers was easier because I could address multiple episodes at a time, which allowed for more trend work, but it’d still be intriguing.

If you’ll allow me to circle back around to my initial point now: It’s challenging to write about Happy Endings for these reasons. The series is consistently funny each week and reaches those comedic heights with fairly simple jokes and gags. You could say that they’re complex in terms of how much intertextual knowledge you might need to have, but the way they’re deployed is relatively simple and straightforward. Simple pleasures are just as worthy as complex, difficult pleasures, but writing about those simple pleasures is problematic on a weekly basis. This might just be true for me, but I think it’s relatively consistent throughout modern online criticism. Reviews of Community and Louie tend to be longer and include more user comments as well. I’m not saying that the people who tackle Happy Endings or Modern Family or Up All Night each week aren’t good writers or that their pieces aren’t good. They’re just…less “interesting” in the ways we, as a little community, have determined interesting.

I’m not sure how to tackle this issue. Again, maybe it’s just a hang-up that I have. Nevertheless, I just wanted to at least make an attempt to point out that I do have this issue and more importantly, point out that I think Happy Endings deserves boatloads of praise for simply being hilarious week in, week out, even if I can’t figure out an interesting way to say it each week.

2 thoughts on “Just be funny: On why Happy Endings is the new Friends and how it’s hard to express that

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Community is something that makes me laugh often, but is also incredibly intellectually satisfying. Happy Endings just straight up makes me laugh for 22 minutes. It also makes me miss Cougar Town. I think that they would be a perfect paring on ABC. Maybe not ratingswise, but tonally.

    Anyway, I do think that there are a couple of ways that criticism and insightful reviewing can be engaged in without devolving into recaps and amusing quotes. Alyssa Rosenberg often tweets about her perception of Brad/Jane’s marriage and how television handles minorities. Some astute politically/culturally minded people could definitely delve into the character interactions based on minority and gender breakdowns. The characters include a non-stereotypical gay man, an interracial married couple, and a former couple who seem to have legitimately gotten over each other. It also has minimal will-they-or-won’t-they drama. I’m impressed by how a Friendslike show is able to avoid the trope. Regardless, someone out there somewhere could definitely take a deeper look at the characters and their interactions, which would make for an interesting review style.

    Another way it might be done would be to compare Happy Endings to other sitcoms that appear to go for the brainless laugh. Shows like 2.5 Men, 2 Broke Girls, and (to a certain extent) TBBT allow for plenty of potentially hilarious moments that aren’t particularly clever. I’m not someone who finds those shows funny, but lots of my friends will laugh uproariously at them AND Happy Endings. At the same time, while the pleasure of the jokes may be simple in Happy Endings, they certainly aren’t (to use your wording) deployed as such. Unlike shows with studio audiences, the laughter isn’t only derived from the typical “setup-punchline” style of humour. Again, using your words, the layering acts as a way to break a certain laughter threshold for me. I might not have laughed at a first attempt at a joke, but the writers commit and then drop in 4 or 5 extra/unneeded lines to push me over the edge. They also include numerous cutaway shots of the other characters reacting to the layered zingers. Maybe those reviews would be too technical, but analysing how the humour of this particular single-cam is different from multi-cams (or mockumentaries and other single cams) is something I would find particularly interesting and engaging.

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  2. when i watched the first episode of season one, i guffawed! a lot. hooked ever since. but no one else in my circle has heard of it. thanks for writing about this show.

    Like

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