“I work for Satan,” says Thom Payne, the advertising executive hero of Showtime’s “Happyish,” which is now just a few hours away from joining TV’s unseemly Sunday evening cornucopia. “I’ve worked for the Dark Lord for 20 years now and I want to say this ‘(famous obscene transitive verb) Mad Men!’ There’s nothing interesting about advertising.”
Maybe on “Mad Men” there isn’t but oh yes there is on “Happyish.” Eventually, it turns into the wickedly funny satire on the advertising business that so many people hoped “Mad Men” would be so much more often.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still watching “Mad Men” on Sundays to see what happens on the show’s final gasps of life on the AMC network. I want to see what happens, at the very least, to Joan and Peggy, as I’ve often written.
But every doubt I’ve had about “Mad Men’s” supposedly scrupulous accuracy and its lack of satiric bite is solved by “Happyish,” a show in which an experienced and savvy ad exec (played by Bradley Whitford) is wont to muse to his buddy Thom (Steve Coogan) “You gotta hand it to Al Qaeda. What did they spend on 9/11? A couple hundred grand?”
Now there’s a perspective on 9/11 you wouldn’t find anywhere but the premium cable channel that brought us such cynical outrages as “Californication,” “House of Lies” and “Shameless.”
And that’s only in the premiere episode of “Happyish”; next Sunday’s episode really ratchets up the satire of modern-day advertising wringing its creative hands over the age (50) of the elves in Keebler Cookie ads.
Those middle-aged elves send the wrong message to the most eagerly desired audience, says the young creative director to his staff, including the 44-year-old Thom. After all, it’s “reality” that “tests well with the millennials.”
So they need a new campaign to appeal to younger cookie munchers who need to be sold their doughy sugary treats in a real and recognizable world. Little documentary films, rather than funny and cute ads, is the answer, says the creative director. You know – things that might be directed by Ken Burns, maybe. Or Michael Moore. Or Rob Reiner, whom the fellow knowingly proclaims directed “the best documentary film ever – ‘This Is Spinal Tap.’ ”
Then, after that next Sunday, there’s the young female executive who explains the current problems of Coca-Cola in the marketplace: There’s “no joy in Coke.”
The soft drink has just been selling happiness all these years. And “happiness?” she asks the staff. Then, in answer to her own question, she says “It tests poorly. How do you sell happiness in an age of disillusionment?”
How indeed? Wickedly funny stuff.
“Happyish” is eventually a richly funny TV show about a 44-year-old ad exec named Thom who worries that taking Viagra may mix adversely with his Prozac.
A corporate headhunter on the show, played by Ellen Barkin, tells Thom’s wife Lee (the marvelous Kathryn Hahn) “You’re as happy now as you’ll ever be. We each have our joy ceiling. … That’s why Jesus wept – low joy ceiling.”
Right about here one needs to emphasize that nothing is really holy to “Happyish.” It’s the Showtime tradition. It’s a half-hour weekly sitcom with a slam-bang satirical disrespect for the advertising business, as well as death, happiness, religion and, yes, sex.
In case you haven’t noticed, that’s Showtime’s thing more often than not. A lot of rough language and irreverence takes place in “Happyish”– especially in its first episode. And too, how many other cable TV shows will you find that show us four adult friends who repair, after dinner, to the backyard to smoke weed and discuss the pros and cons of vaginoplasty for women who have had children? In the interest of equal time, of course, the size of male members comes in for its share of jokes too – and good ones for a change.
When someone comes into Thom’s office under cover of night and removes his sofa, his buddy tells him to think of it as an insult to his manhood on the order of someone relieving himself in Thom’s office. “Corporate America is a German porno,” he explains helpfully.
Another subject that Showtime has made much of in the likes of “Californication” and “Out of Order” (which starred Eric Stoltz in 2003) is the acute malaise of the educated classes in chosen professions which have no real regard for Liberal Arts people, English major division.
Each episode of “Happyish” comes with a cast list led off with famous intellectual figures and subjects of passing interest in the ensuing show. The first show is billed as “Starring Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Alois Alzheimer.” The second “Marc Chagall, Abuela and Adolf Hitler” and the third “Vladimir Nabokov, Hippocrates and God.”
Writer/creator Shalom Auslander explains it this way in the show’s press material: “It’s all God’s fault. I was raised an Orthodox Jew and while God seemed to make other believers happy, he scared the living (expletive) out of me. All that yelling and flooding and killing the first-borns. The guy was (expletive) nuts. That’s the whole appeal of God, after all – happiness! Rapture! Ecstasy! As long as you don’t eat pigs. Eat a pig and you’re on the Misery Train forever. But boy did that pig look good. Even on my parents’ small black-and-white TV, the bacon in McDonald’s commercials looked delicious.”
His show, he says, is about this: “Lately I wonder if we’ve been pursuing the wrong thing all along. Maybe happiness is too high a bar. Maybe the best we can hope for is ‘happyish.’ ”
Not necessarily when you’re watching his show, though. All that genuine uncut edginess made me happy.
So much so that it grieves me to have to mention one very unhappy but, I think, necessary subject in conclusion: This show, which stars the superb Steve Coogan, was originally supposed to star Philip Seymour Hoffman as hero Thom Payne.
He had obviously read some scripts before his fatal drug overdose. I’d rather not think about how the prospect of doing this show led him back, after many years, to drugs.
But I can’t help but wonder.