Review: ‘HAPPYish’ Premiere is More of a Tragedy than Comedy

Steve Coogan plays the role of Thom Payne in

What’s the key to happiness? Steve Coogan plays the role of Thom Payne in “HAPPYish” in a new series. Photo: Showtime

Caution: This review contains spoilers on the first episode of “HAPPYish.”

There seems to be a fascination with covering the world of advertising and new marketing. Sure, there’s the social media obsession, but it’s more or less overkill to situate an entire television series in that world. 2013 brought us “The Crazy Ones,” which at least started well on CBS. Then last year, ABC brought “Black-ish,” which some may argue, adds the element of being African American to the mix; however, I find it often disintegrates to low humor and gimmicks. The most recent (and hardly improved) endeavor comes from Showtime in Shalom Auslander’s “HAPPYish.”

The comedy-drama focuses on Thom Payne (Steve Coogan), who has reached his 44th birthday. He’s got a great job as a creative director for MGT, a marketing agency. Two Swedes (Nils Lawton and Tobias Segal) are now his bosses, a move that leaves everyone fearful of losing their jobs. His immediate supervisor, Jonathan (Bradley Whitford), advises him to “rebrand” himself and follow whatever the Swedes say.

Thom is married to his lovely wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and they have a cute son, Julius (Sawyer Shipman). Perhaps he should be happy, but he isn’t. That feeling isn’t being helped by the questions about his relevance. His friend, Dani (Ellen Barkin), insists that everyone has a “joy ceiling” and maxes out on happiness.

The name Thomas Payne seems to be a harkening back to the more significant man in history (albeit with a slightly different spelling of Paine), who penned “Common Sense” and inspired the American Founding Fathers. Auslander evokes those allusions right away by bringing Mount Rushmore and the head of Thomas Jefferson into the opening frames. Yet, this Thom Payne is of a different sort of mettle. A discussion leader at the local gym poses the question, “How many of you think Thom Payne is capable of revolt?” Unsurprisingly, that’s a resounding “No” by the group of young people. The references to Jefferson, Camus (listed in the opening credits), and others comprise perhaps the most clever aspect of this premiere installment.

Indeed, Thom’s frustration finally boils over into a workout enhancer-induced rant and a very bizarre (and graphic) dream featuring the Keebler Elves. Keebler really could have done better than “HAPPYish.” It all results in a show that is laden with the overused mid-life crisis theme, stereotypical career woes and personalities, and plenty of time for big brands to have their names dropped in rapid succession. “HAPPYish” offers a couple of promising moments, but it emits a sense of arrogance and anger that is more likely to chase away rather than draw in viewers before Thom even has a chance to engage in any substantive or game changing revolt.

The “HAPPYish” premiere was first released on Youtube. The series debuts on Showtime on Sunday evening, April 26, at 9:30|8:30c.

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