I sometimes forget that I’ve turned the corner on 40, and am now – undeniably – IN my forties. Television is one place where I rarely forget my age, mainly because I’m now older than most of the people on the shows I watch. But Showtime is making me feel a whole lot better with its new series, “Happyish.”
With “Cougar Town” taking its final bow, I was afraid I’d never find another TV gang to fill the void. But I think I have. This satirical half hour full of middle fingers, plenty of F-words, and the odd disturbing fantasy involving the Keebler elves is about people like me. The main characters on “Happyish” are all in their forties or fifties and they still don’t have life figured out – and that feels so right. Watching “Happyish” is like hanging out with my friends for half an hour. It doesn’t make me feel like I need to go work out, stop drinking, or clean up my language. It makes me feel at home.
Thom Payne (Steve Coogan) and his wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn) are the couple at the center of the pseudo midlife crisis that is “Happyish.” Thom is a disillusioned ad exec struggling to hold on his job as his agency is overtaken by a couple of 20-something “wunderkinds” from Germany.
Lee is a stay-at-home mom/artist who is locked in an imaginary battle with her oppressive Jewish mother. Thom and Lee are too tired to have sex, but they want to. They are rarely seen without a beer or a glass of wine while hanging out at home in the evenings or on the weekend with friends. They swear like sailors. And they wonder about where they are in life – and whether they are fulfilling their American destiny when it comes to the pursuit of happiness.
When I first turned 40, I didn’t have a breakdown. In fact, I realized that 40 meant freedom from judgment and other people’s expectations. I figured, at this point, this is my life and if you don’t like it, then too damn bad. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t strive to improve and increase my happiness factor. It’s relating to that struggle that really attracts me to this show.
Thom’s revelation in the series premiere, that “happyish” might be the best we can expect at this point feels familiar. During a lunch with his caustic friend Dani (Ellen Barkin), he asks if he could be happier if he moved to a different company.
“That’s a myth, Thom,” Dani said. “You’re as happy right now as you can ever be. We each have our own joy ceiling…you hit your joy ceiling and you’re done. That’s why Jesus wept – low joy ceiling.”
It was her tough-broad way of telling him to shut up and be content instead of constantly striving for something more or different, that after a while always ends up feeling exactly the same anyway.
And I love the relationship the Paynes have with their friends. While they each talk a lot about their respective “bubbles” and how they don’t want anyone to mess with their bubbles, this couple has a community that seems genuine and adds to their appeal. At Thom’s 44th birthday dinner, the parents leave the kids inside to sneak an illicit smoke. My friends have done that.
Critics haven’t responded to the show the way I have. They are obsessed with the pretentious references to each episode’s featured philosophers (Thomas Jefferson, Camus, Hippocrates, and even God have shown up so far) and can’t seem to help making comparisons with “Mad Men,” which I disagree with. The ad agency angle is only relevant as a canvas for Thom to paint his growing insecurities about his fading relevance in an ever-changing world.
Maybe I’m too old and tired to care about the subtler messages in the show. It works for me without any interpretation or search for higher meaning. It makes me laugh and feel at home. And, most of all, it makes me feel like I just got a whole new crew to hang out with every week.