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Shows like Happyish are why I'm so tired of white guys being the default protagonists

Steve Coogan stars in Happyish, and he wants you to know everything's going to be all right.
Steve Coogan stars in Happyish, and he wants you to know everything's going to be all right.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In recent years, more and more TV and film reviews have tackled issues of diversity and representation. If a show or movie is about yet another rich, straight, white male protagonist, for many critics — including me — that story has something to prove to convince viewers to invest their time in it.

Maybe this is unfair. Plenty of people would argue a story should stand on its own, based on its own intrinsic qualities, regardless of whether it crosses hurdles of representation.

But I would say that storytelling is often the biggest problem with the default white male protagonist. Too often, that storytelling is just lazy. As evidence, I'll point to Showtime's Happyish, a show that perfectly exemplifies why this trope is so very tiring.

Finally, a show about a well-off guy who worries he's not happy enough!

There are a handful of things to recommend in this new comedy. (You can watch the first episode here. The show airs Sundays on Showtime at 10:30 pm Eastern.)

Steve Coogan
and Kathryn Hahn are frequently very good as the central two characters, Thom and Lee Payne. The show's first episode starts with an elliptical editing style that ends seemingly normal scenes with quick fades to black, suggesting endings in the middle of domestic bliss. And the show presents Thom and Lee's marriage as fundamentally sound. (Happyish has trouble making this interesting, but Coogan and Hahn are good enough to carry it.)

But Happyish, like so many other shows of its ilk, confuses mentioning weighty, philosophical topics with actually discussing or understanding them. Creator Shalom Auslander, a novelist, wants to bring a short-story sensibility to TV. That could work. Many of the best shows embrace the power of a terrific episode, as opposed to a larger serialized story.

But Auslander's story proceeds as if he's the guy at the party who smirks and says he doesn't even own a television. The show counts being transgressive — like Thom having sex with one of the Keebler elves in a dream — as being insightful, when it's really just fumbling around on the keyboard, searching for the right buttons to push.

And worst of all, it's so, so derivative.


Kathryn Hahn also stars in Happyish. (Showtime)

The show acts as if the idea of Thom suddenly saying what he's thinking and speaking truth to power — with numerous references to great thinkers of the past — is going to be inherently interesting. The show acts as if there's never been a series made about a successful man having a midlife crisis when recent TV history has been built off of that model — except Tony Soprano was a mobster, and his midlife crisis involved the fact that his morality was utterly unhinged.

But the life Happyish proclaims as normal — that of the rich, comfortable, mildly unhappy white dude — is one lived by a very small swath of the population.

Why did Showtime fight so hard to keep this show alive?


"Look at this happy American family. Who can't relate to that?" ask our nation's TV executives. (Showtime)

The weird thing about Happyish is that Showtime battled to keep it going. The series' original star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died after completing only the pilot. In many circumstances, the network would have stopped production on the show, but Showtime proceeded apace.

At least with Hoffman, Happyish would have been the first TV series starring the Oscar winner. With Coogan, it's just a show about the average American guy, now played by a Brit, seasoned with stuff you've seen a million times before.

But there's one big reason the executives Showtime fought for this show: at heart, it's about them.

Yeah, Thom is an ad man, but everything about him marks him as belonging to the same demographic as most TV executives — who keep greenlighting shows about men like Thom because they recognize themselves in him.

Thom worries about attracting youthful viewers with his ads. He longs for the old days of his industry, while simultaneously wishing he could stop peddling trash and do something authentic. He spends a lot of time ranting about how online culture and social media are ruining everything, while not really seeming to understand them.

In an age when Hollywood's corporate gatekeepers are waking up to the idea that there are people other than themselves worth telling stories about, it's depressing to have a show like this slowly shuffle out to center stage to take bows it hasn't remotely begun to earn.

Diversity isn't just politically important; it creates better stories

Let's contrast Happyish with another new show, the CW's daffily brilliant telenovela Jane the Virgin. Jane is by no stretch of the imagination a perfect show, but it has something Happyish lacks — actual stakes.

The women of its central Latina family have to worry about how to make ends meet, the compromise of their religious devotion, and deportation. Its protagonist will soon be a single mother. These are stories TV has rarely told before, stories with dramatic complications that keep me tuning in.

By contrast, Happyish's stakes are, by and large, borrowed from Mad Men (a series it takes a dig at in the pilot), and it suffers for that. That it dares to sneer at a series that actually made the story of a successful man feeling slightly unhappy into compelling drama for seven seasons is rich.


Rob Reiner guest stars in an episode. (I just wanted to use a picture of Rob Reiner.) (Showtime)

Even if everything else about the show were perfect (it's not), the show would be playing in such well-trodden territory that it would have no real way to stand out, short of faux-edgy content disguising the emptiness at its core.

When I say that TV needs to get better about diverse representation, I'm not saying stories about rich, straight white men need to stop being told or that they never have value. I wouldn't want to be robbed of Mad Men or The Americans or Hannibal. What I mean is that TV and movie stories have been told from that default point of view for so long now that it feels like a breath of fresh air when the perspective shifts.

Happyish isn't bad because it's about a white guy. It's bad because it's bad. But the assumptions that led to its existence have too often let lazy television like this slide onto the air. The least we can do is question those assumptions.

Happyish airs Sundays on Showtime at 10:30 pm Eastern.

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