2010-2011 season wrap: Happy Endings

With the 2010-2011 television season officially over, I’ll be taking some time over the next week or so to look back on how some of television’s best and worst fared this season.

General thoughts: Happy Endings never had a chance, at least at first. By the time it finally made it to air in early April, viewers and critics had just experienced a large string of terrible sitcoms about young people in various stages of a relationship, or put simpler, Friends rip-offs. For whatever reason, the broadcast networks decided that 2010-11 was going to be the time that America was finally ready for that Friends-ian series again, so every single one of the big four networks took a swing at the template. CBS trotted out Mad Love, FOX tried Traffic Light, NBC brought us Perfect Couples (and kept another one, Friends With Benefits, off the schedule completely) and ABC quasi-tried it with Better With You as well. Although a few of those series, most notably Traffic Light and Perfect Couples, had a few glimmers of quality, they mostly sucked. And taken as a whole and part of a random, larger trend, it was hard not to sigh at Happy Endings‘ existence by the time ABC tried to burn it off. Throw in a particularly wonky premise and it was easy to see why those sighs quickly turned into negative scoffs in the early reviews of Happy Endings.

But as I’ve said COUNTLESS times this season (really, probably too much at this point), broadcast comedies regularly take half-dozen or so episodes before they really show what they are made of. Pilots can show potential and I personally think the Happy Endings pilot did so, but once the actors start embodying the characters and bouncing off one another, the conception of a series changes, sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically. As friend of the blog Daniel Walters wrote yesterday, we like our sitcom characters to like one another and have a good chemistry and Happy Endings quickly figured out that it needed to ditch its wonky premise and focus on those elements. By the time the fourth or fifth episode hit airwaves (which were most certainly intended to air much later in the episode order), Happy Endings turned into a nice little comedy series that has lots of room to grow.

I guess I see the logic in trying to develop a Friends-style series. If the casting is very good and the actors have even solid chemistry with one another, that kind of sitcom can work. Even though there are dozens of comedy series that are better than Friends, the NBC megahit still nailed the character-based comedy better than anything else, especially in those fantastic earlier seasons. Friends was a series that understood who its actors were and who its characters, which allowed it to develop conceits that, at least in the earlier seasons, felt like natural extensions of who those people were. Plots can range widely, but they still have the characters to center them a bit. High concepts seem innovative in theory, but when it comes to television comedy, it is always nice to focus on people who audiences would just like to hang out with. Unfortunately, if you don’t get the casting right or worse, the writing is just terrible, these natural, character-based comedies don’t work and seem completely derivative.

Happy Endings is in good shape in these respects. Not only is the writing sharp and the cast compatible and comfortable with one another, but there is space to expand the world, the running gags and more. The basic, but most important elements of what makes a comedy good (cast, writing) are there and in theory, the series should be able to use those positives to its advantage. This might be an easy comparison to make because they are on the same network, but Happy Endings reminds me a lot of Cougar Town. It started off with a fairly stupid and somewhat inaccessible narrative that would/should have never sustain a television series and it quickly figured out what its strengths were and started playing to them. Both series are essentially about nothing to use the Seinfeld tagline, but they succeed because the people doing the “nothing” work very well together in comedic situations.

The non-wedding aftermath is still a problematic element of the series’ narrative, but I thought the season finale did a very nice job of exploring Dave and Alex’s romantic possibilities without focusing on them too much. It is completely ridiculous that the two of them are still so close and trying to make it work as friends after what happened on their supposed-to-be wedding day, but Endings has made some strides in somehow fully embracing that stupidity by grounding it in rational, logical aftermath events like tattoo removal, awkward dating situations, etc. Basically, the series has stripped away the wedding part of the story and simply treated Dave and Alex like any other sitcom couple that has a break-up, and that’s really the smartest thing Happy Endings could have ever done.

I do think that some folks on Twitter got a little carried away with the Happy Endings love, however. I watched every single episode and wrote a post about why ABC should renew the series for a second season, but it the reaction to the admittedly very solid middle episodes seemed a bit much. Perhaps that was just a byproduct of who I follow on Twitter and the kind of cluttered world we live in where the people who like something feel like they have to YELL IT OUT AT EVERYONE just to get noticed, but despite my enjoyment of the series, I’m not ready to say it belongs in the conversation with television’s best comedies. But as I always say, comedies get much better in their second seasons, so I really do hope that Happy Endings cashes in on its fairly substantial potential and becomes one of the best like some already believe it to be.

Season grade: B

Four best episodes (shortened due to the shortened episode order): “Mein Coming Out,” “Like Father, Like Gun,” “Of Mice & Jazz-Kwon-Do,” “The Shershow Redemption,” but a special shout-out to the hipster stuff in “Dave of the Dead”

Three worst episodes: “Bo Night,” “Barefoot Pedaler,” “Pilot”

Standout performer: I really like everyone on the cast, even Elisha Cuthbert, but Adam Pally is tremendously funny. Gotta give it to him.

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