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In praise of Happy Endings, the best, most twisted hangout sitcom ever

The gang dresses for Halloween as the marionette Jackson 5.
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Happy Endings — a little-known but much-loved comedy about six friends living in Chicago — premiered on April 13, 2011. The series ran for just three seasons, with plenty of obstacles in its way: Season one aired completely out of order, and over the course of Happy Endings' three-season run, it switched time slots multiple times while its network, ABC, put only minimal effort into its publicity and marketing.

As star Eliza Coupe told Complex, which recently compiled an oral history of the show, "Nobody promoted us, we never had any publicity. Even the posters and billboards around town were stock photos of not even us—just some random wedding cake."

Still, by the second half of Happy Endings' first season and continuing throughout its second, the show that many critics had initially written off as yet another weak pretender to the Friends throne was being lauded as one of the best comedies on TV. Its cancellation is still lamented, but the show has recently found new life on Hulu, which has the full run available to stream.

Here's why Happy Endings is such an enduring cult hit.

Happy Endings is a traditional sitcom hopped up on illegal Mexican cough syrup

A guy on roller skates breaks up a wedding.
Much like Friends, Happy Endings began with an ill-fated wedding.

On its surface, Happy Endings has a pretty standard premise: It's a single-camera comedy about six (beautiful, mostly white) 20- and 30-somethings in a big city who are all navigating work and relationships while still finding time to spend inordinate amounts of time with one another. It easily could have been just one in a long line of TV comedies that tried to emulate the massive success of Friends but arguably ended up ruining TV comedy. The show even began with a similar story beat, having one of the female characters run out on her own wedding.

Yet it soon became clear that Happy Endings was different. Through some magic combination of writers, showrunners, and performers, the series managed to expand on the "hangout sitcom" formula, evolving its core characters into fearsomely sharp-witted borderline sociopaths who, despite a collective burden of neuroses and habits that would inspire most people to run away screaming, were somehow still likable.

The sixsome at the center of the show — Alex (Elisha Cuthbert); her former fiancé/on-again, off-again boyfriend Dave (Zachary Knighton); her sister Jane (Coupe) and Jane's husband Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.); Alex and Jane's friend Penny (Casey Wilson) and Penny's college boyfriend turned gay best friend Max (Adam Pally) — seem to exist in a separate universe that's only tangentially connected to reality. They have their own slang ("amaahhzing"), they know every fact of each other's lives, and their friendships operate under a specific, often cruel set of rules. Witness, for example, "the pile-on," which everyone outside their immediate circle is horrified by:

In this regard especially, Happy Endings takes the usual sitcom formula and curb-stomped it. The main characters aren't just a group of people who spend a lot of time together; they're fiercely co-dependent, utterly insular, and frequently monstrous to each other as well as to outsiders (a fact the series' peripheral characters call out often). Hangout sitcoms live or die by the strength of their casts' chemistry, and by that metric, Happy Endings is near the top of the sitcom food chain.

The show uses sitcoms' habit of resetting the status quo to its advantage

Boyz II Menorah music video
Max and Brad start a bar mitzvah MC business, Boyz II Menorah. It does not last long.

Vox culture editor Todd VanDerWerff argued for the AV Club in 2014 that too many sitcoms have an absence of real conflict, which strangles any possibility for real, interesting action. And it's true that most episodes of Happy Endings conclude with the characters in roughly the same place as they started, like a live-action cartoon that hits the reset button every week.

But the show's near-constant return to the status quo is generally obscured by the jokes, which fly so thick and fast — and are so off-kilter, so memorably specific — that episodes crackle with energy despite plots that feature little actual forward movement.

Sometimes the narrative inertia even becomes fodder for more jokes, as with the many, many plots in which perpetually single Penny meets "a great guy" who disappears after one episode, or when Max lets Jane give him a total life makeover, only to reverse it almost immediately so his former roommate/nemesis Chase (Mark Paul Gosselaar) will have no way to ruin his already wrecked life.

As executive producer Joe Russo put it to Complex:

As we developed it, we just kept pushing the pace and trying to make the jokes faster and faster. We used to call it the Russo edit — we’d go into the edit room and suck all the air out of the episode and just get the pace as quick as possible and make the jokes overlap. It's something we learned from Mitchell Hurwitz when we worked on Arrested Development. He used to say, "Let's have so many jokes that we can throw half of them away," and that was always our motto.

(Check out Happy Endings' "just the jokes" episode cuts on YouTube for evidence of the Russo edit.)

None of the show's plot lines are exactly earth-shattering — Dave and Alex's tumultuous relationship is probably the biggest source of conflict that lasts for more than an episode. But its simple stories resulted in a metric ton of weirdness — plots like Max and Alex staging an "in-ter-Veention" (or is it "interventVeen"?) for Dave's addiction to V-neck T-shirts; Penny seducing a hot foreigner with her fluent Italian, only to realize her language skills go hand-in-hand with getting blackout drunk; and Brad and Jane getting roped into using their newly learned couples improv skills to prop up Max's fake Chicago limo tour business. Without the breathing room to dive into those bizarro plots, the show would have diluted the very specific flavor that makes it such a standout.

Happy Endings offers a twisted, meta take on the usual sitcom rules

All of Happy Endings' characters are perversions of the stock types usually found in hangout comedies: Max is a slovenly, macho guy's guy who also happens to be gay, Brad and Jane are a happy husband and wife who delight in inverting gender stereotypes, Dave is the "cool guy" whose cool-guy affectations (V-necks, an acoustic guitar) make him a target of ridicule.

Alex has one of those unrealistic, vaguely defined jobs that so many TV characters enjoy — she somehow owns her own clothing boutique that doesn't appear to be a viable source of income and probably isn't open very often. But Happy Endings makes it into a running joke, commenting on the fact that her store is almost always empty and revealing the desperate tactics she'll employ for business, including starting a child labor ring and selling out a famous singer to the paparazzi.

The show even lampshades all of its Friends comparisons, courtesy of season two's "The St. Valentine's Day Maxssacre":

Happy Endings also offers up sly social commentary that helps ground its off-the-wall vibe, but it never devolves into soggy moralizing. As Wayans Jr. explained to Complex:

It never beat you over the head. It was never a message. This was just how life really is. You’re friends with who your [sic] friends with and you just accept people for who they are. You'll make a couple of jokes about it but that's just natural friendship.

But what Happy Endings does best is take what could be a typical sitcom plot and crank up the absurdity notch by notch until it reaches nuclear levels. In the season two episode "Big White Lies," for instance, the plot hinges on Penny telling a little fib to get out of having coffee with an acquaintance named Daphne; Penny simply doesn't want to admit that she'd rather not go, because she fears looking like a mean person.

Where a lesser sitcom would use this plot as a B- or C-story involving at most two characters, Happy Endings loops all six of its leads into Penny's web of lies, until by the third act Brad and Jane are opening gifts at a shower for their fictional baby, Alex is oscillating between pretending to be a lesbian and seducing Max and Dave's skeevy landlord, and Dave is faking a terminal illness.

It built out a rich world full of detail and layers

Much like other cult comedy favorites such as Broad City, Archer, and Arrested Development, Happy Endings knows how to harness the power of callbacks and running gags. Penny's season one refrain of "amaahhzing" elicits a collective groan from her friends in season two. Daphne from the aforementioned "Little White Lies" returns in season three for a brief cameo that kicks off one episode's A-plot. And, true to the show's love of wordplay, one of its running gags is literally gags:

In addition to packing its scripts with ever-deepening jokes, Happy Endings boasts a guest-star roster stacked with comedy heavy hitters, including Megan Mullally as Penny's mom, Larry Wilmore as Brad's boss, Rachael Harris as a disgruntled realtor, Rob Corddry as a car salesman known as the Car Czar (he knows what cars are), and too many more to list. Their presence cements the feeling that Happen Endings exists in a heightened version of reality, with its own rules and lots of characters who are even weirder than our six heroes.

The show's world building extends offscreen, too. The bonds between cast members are the stuff of legends; the actors still hang out regularly, and series creator David Caspe and star Wilson are now married. It all adds yet another layer to the viewing experience; you can tune in to see your favorite funny characters while also realizing you're watching wildly talented comedic performers bounce off each other in ever-escalating fashion.

The cast and crew have all gone on to other projects, but they still speak wistfully of their time on the show, and rumors of a reunion movie or a fourth season swirl periodically.

However, the best description of the singular alchemy that made Happy Endings so enjoyable — and so memorable — probably comes from creator Caspe: "I am desperately trying to recreate it. I don't know how to do it. It was lightning in a bottle, really. "

Watch: Broad City's weird and wonderful world of jokes

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