It’s rare to encounter a half-hour dramedy on a premium network that is as misconceived, off-putting and impenetrably shrill as Shalom Auslander’s “Happyish,” which will have its official premiere Sunday night on Showtime. (The network aired the pilot earlier this month in an attempt to create some buzz, but the only buzz coming from “Happyish” is the sound of those saws they use to cut into concrete.)
I say it’s rare because of how this particular slice of the TV-making business often works, in which a network such as Showtime will extend a generous period of development to get the tone and vibe of a dramedy just right. A lot of finessing and editing goes into such successful, cruel-humored shows as “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and “Girls” — as well as, to use examples from Showtime’s library, “Episodes,” “Weeds” and the excellent “Nurse Jackie,” now in its final season.
“Happyish” arrives a year later than originally planned. Those who follow showbiz news probably know that Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a drug overdose in early 2014, was supposed to be the show’s star. And those who got a brief glimpse of Hoffman’s work in the earliest iteration of “Happyish,” including a gathering of TV critics, seemed enthusiastic about the results. Objectively or otherwise, it’s nearly impossible to watch this version without wondering if it might have played better with Hoffman in the lead.
Instead, British actor Steve Coogan (“Philomena,” “Night at the Museum”) plays Thom Payne, a 44-year-old executive at MGT, a big New York ad agency that has just appointed two interchangeable millennials named Gustaf and Gottfrid as disruptive creative directors.
Gustav and Gottfrid of course have no specific ideas for Thom and the rest of the MGT staff, other than to spout their generational disdain for the way things usually operate. In their opening staff rally, Gustav (or is Gottfrid?) likens the agency’s future to the difference between black-and-white television and color. “What comes after color?” he asks. “You tell us!”
That right there is a somewhat smartly observed, post-“Dilbert” detail about present-day work life in creative/white-collar environs: Everybody’s after the next big thing, but the boss expects you (no matter your job title or pay grade) to be the magic innovator. It’s disruption for disruption’s sake, and it tends to bring out the worst in people, especially mid-career types in their 40s whose proudest accomplishments are rapidly vanishing in a youth culture that’s desperate to reinvent the wheel.
This is the most charitable and sensible theme I can suss out of the first three episodes of “Happyish” and whatever story Auslander (a memoirist and “This American Life” contributor) is trying to tell with it. “Happyish” has its head stuck so far up its rear end and is so filled with personal rage and rotten people that just a small dose of the show should easily dissuade half its viewers from sticking around. The other half will perhaps sense a melody beneath all the foul-mouthed diatribes and self-absorbed whining.
Maybe there’s an audience for it, but what I hear all the time from viewers is that they’re tired of shows in which there are no characters to like. This can be especially dispiriting when a show such as “Happyish” is stocked with actors whose work you’ve enjoyed before — not only Kathryn Hahn and Bradley Whitford, but also Carrie Preston (“The Good Wife” and “True Blood”).
Each episode begins with a tirade against someone or something that isn’t worth screaming at: In the first episode, Thom rages at the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Eff-you, Thomas Jefferson! In another episode, Thom’s wife, Lee (Hahn), goes off on the matriarch of “The Brady Bunch.” Eff-you, Carol Brady! In another, Thom’s rant is an eff-you to God. Condemnations are strewn throughout “Happyish” without purpose or nuance — AMC’s “Mad Men,” the Keebler cookie elves, Dora the Explorer and the New York Life insurance company all get the middle finger (“Who the f--- wants to follow Pepto Bismol on Twitter?” Thom lashes out). Eff everything, including the skinny jeans and updated wardrobe Thom is urged to adopt by his shrewd yet soulless boss (Whitford), who has accepted the presence of Gustaf and Gottfrid as the inevitable coda to an empty existence.
When the hallucinatory visage of the Geico gecko begins taunting him, Thom physically assaults it. The profanity — as well as the defilement of corporate brands — is meant to be wickedly funny, but it’s mainly hack satire. Everything Thom and Lee complain about has been complained about already. It’s up to Ellen Barkin, as the executive headhunter Thom turns to in search of a new job that will make him happier, to deliver “Happyish’s” strongest medicine: Get over it. “You’re as happy as you can ever be. We each have our own joy ceiling,” she says, and Thom, you’ve hit yours.
Thom and Lee live in a tranquil home in the hilly exurbs, furnished in their own resentment. After a meal with their friends (Andre Royo and Molly Price), the couples analyze and freely insult their children while they load the dishwasher, trying to decide if the other couple’s son is (another word for penis) or perhaps (another word for rectum) and if the Paynes’s son is merely (another word for vagina). Yes, they are talking about their own children. Later, Thom and Lee watch hardcore porn to relax.
Ah, you say with recognition. You have watched shows like this before and dealt with similar characters: They’re made to be despicable so that we will relate to some despicableness deep within ourselves. Therefore, all you have to do is watch enough episodes — how many? Four? Six? Ten? — until you learn to appreciate the complicated way (and loud way; they’re so effing loud!) they express their frustrations.
Listen, knock yourselves out, but I couldn’t wait to get far away from “Happyish” and its opinions on modern behavior at the office and at home. (And I like complaining about both.) There’s nothing wrong with a little darkness in the soul; the misanthropy and insecurity dwelling inside us can often lead to wry and spot-on storytelling — ask Larry David, he knows. But “Happyish” quickly putrefies, shriveling up into nothing.
Auslander and “Happyish” wouldn’t have to look far for an example of how the right texture can bring a despicable character to life in such a way that the viewer roots for her no matter what she does: It’s Showtime’s unheralded but always compelling “Nurse Jackie,” which returned April 12 for a seventh and final season. Airing alongside each other, “Happyish” and “Nurse Jackie” couldn’t be more different in tone, structure and realization. “Nurse Jackie” has the advantage of being able to discern actual crises from existential ones.
There’s no outdoing the superb episodes of “Nurse Jackie’s” previous season, which ended with All Saints Hospital’s head E.R. nurse, Jackie Peyton (the incomparable Edie Falco), fleeing from certain arrest after she was caught stealing a patient’s identity to feed her out-of-control addiction to prescription opiates. On her way to the airport, Jackie wrecked her car and wound up in jail.
As viewers of the show know, Jackie’s addiction and repeated trips to rock bottom have been the central narrative all along. Her illness cost her a marriage and her relationship with her daughters; now it has alienated her closest friends and allies, especially her fellow nurse Zoey (Merritt Wever) and her boss, Gloria (Anna Deavere Smith).
All Jackie has left is the undying, possibly smothering adoration of Eddie (Paul Schulze), the hospital pharmacist who supplied her habit in exchange for sex. He has lost his job, too, which he considers a golden opportunity to have Jackie to himself.
Having co-starred in the most ambiguously concluded TV show in history (HBO’s “The Sopranos”), Falco certainly deserves the cleanest ending Jackie can get, and the first eight or nine episodes of this season suggest a satisfying and authentic outcome. Out on bail and forcibly detoxed, Jackie must now rise from the ashes. Employing an attorney (“Royal Pain’s” Mark Feuerstein) to help her sue All Saints to get her job back, Jackie is temporarily reinstated as an orderly, earning a third of her previous salary and forbidden from interacting with patients.
Fans of the show know its other central narrative and parallel value: Jackie’s commitment to the patients who come to All Saints transcends even her most heinous transgressions. Her urge to heal others is stronger than her urge to self-medicate. That was plain from the first episode and it was all that viewers ever needed to know to sign on to Jackie’s deplorable downward spiral. In a world that overpraises TV shows about terrible people, even the smallest sliver of good can go a long way.
Happyish (30 minutes) premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.
Nurse Jackie (30 minutes) airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.