Tuned In: Relationship comedy 'Happy Endings' is laugh-out-loud funny
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When reviewing a TV show, a critic tries his or her best to push individual biases out of the way. This is a necessary preface to a review of ABC's "Happy Endings" (9:30 p.m. Wednesday, WTAE), a funny, fast-moving comedy pilot that lost some favor after a terrible press conference at last summer's Television Critics Association press tour. We'll get to that later, but first, let's deal with the "Happy Endings" pilot itself.
On the surface, it's just the fourth young adult relationship comedy of the season following NBC's "Perfect Couples" (canceled), Fox's "Traffic Light" (soon-to-be-canceled) and CBS's "Mad Love" (the jury's still out). But the "Happy Endings" pilot has an added element that trumps all those other shows: It's genuinely funny.
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert.
It's not just amusing in the way some TV comedies can be when they set up recognizable situations. "Happy Endings" is laugh-out-loud funny because the humor comes as a surprise almost every time. Jokes are not telegraphed miles in advance; they're sudden and unexpected.
The show's basic premise is this: Dave (Zachary Knighton) is about to marry Alex (Elisha Cuthbert, "24"), when she leaves him at the altar, sending him into an emotional tailspin. His friends rally around him, even Alex's sister, Jane (Eliza Coupe, "Scrubs"), and her husband, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.). Two single friends are also part of the group that hangs out together: Penny (Casey Wilson, "Saturday Night Live"), who fears she'll end up alone, and Max (newcomer Adam Pally), who consistently gets the show's funniest dialogue.
"Your wedding was horrible," Max tells Dave. "It was like a shark attack. At a Sunday school."
Max is sometimes the butt of his friends' jokes, too, like when they note that he's put on weight. Jane says he looks like Paul Rudd "if Paul Rudd gave up."
After a disastrous (re: hilarious) dinner at a restaurant for Penny's birthday, Dave and Alex call a truce and promise they won't allow their relationship to ruin the group dynamic.
What had me worried about "Happy Endings" after the press conference? Primarily it was that the funniest guy on the show -- Mr. Pally -- was the most insufferable on the panel. When someone asked a question that compared the end of "The Graduate" to the beginning of "Happy Endings," Mr. Pally said, "Not familiar with that movie."
When a reporter asked a serious question about the way the pilot casually introduces a gay character, Mr. Pally's Max, but doesn't make a big deal about his sexuality -- a substantive difference compared to plenty of other TV comedies -- Mr. Pally jumped in to answer: "A lot of the feedback that I've gotten is, 'You're so great. Your performance is so amazing. How are you able to do that? So hard to believe. Women are attracted to you so heavily. It's insane to believe you cannot be straight.' "
Series creator David Caspe didn't help matters, failing to articulate a compelling inspiration for the series beyond his own group of friends. The whole press conference felt like being in an uncomfortable scene from the original British version of "The Office" with Mr. Pally as the obnoxious David Brent (Ricky Gervais), a character who is tone-deaf to what's appropriate in any given situation, just like Mr. Pally was at press tour.
Sometimes I'll watch a pilot and think, "Meh," but then at a press conference the producers or cast outline their intentions so clearly and smartly that it makes me want to give the show another chance. The "Happy Endings" press conference had the opposite effect.
But a jerky actor aside, it's clear after watching two additional episodes that "Happy Endings" remains a fast, funny series that indulges, "Community"-style, in pop culture references -- there's even a joke about being trapped in the woods with a cougar, a nod to Ms. Cuthbert's role on "24." "Happy Endings" excels at fearless humor that's sometimes shocking, not because it's gratuitous, but because it's an unexpected surprise -- and a welcome one at that.
(After this week's 9:30 Wednesday premiere, "Happy Endings" will move to its regular time slot, 10 p.m. Wednesday, next week.)
• TV Q&A will return next week.
First Published April 10, 2011 12:00 am