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It's rare to launch big TV shows during the holidays. Syfy and History are doing just that.

Watch Happy!, an overcaffeinated dramedy with a cartoon unicorn. Skip Knightfall, a boring Knights Templar drama.

Knightfall and Happy
Knightfall and Happy debut Wednesday, December 6.
History, Syfy
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.

For the most part, American television avoids the last two or three weeks of the calendar year. Where Christmas is the time to watch TV in the United Kingdom, which routinely hauls out bushel upon bushel of holiday specials, US networks typically turn down the lights, relying on seasonal staples, from beloved specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to perennial movie favorites like The Sound of Music.

That’s changing in the era of streaming, however. Netflix dropped Making a Murderer less than a week before Christmas in 2015, and it has a new season of Black Mirror coming shortly before New Year’s Day this year. Amazon has routinely used this time of year to host Mozart in the Jungle and is launching the handsome British miniseries The Last Post on December 22. (Mozart appears to have slipped to 2018 and out of the holiday season.)

This may be why two major cable networks — Syfy and History — are launching two big new drama series, which will air through the holidays and well into the new year. In the case of Syfy’s Happy!, this makes a certain perverse sense: The ultra-brutal, deeply strange series is set during the holiday season and is laden with Christmas carols. History’s Knightfall, meanwhile, is about the Christian order of the Knights Templar, so you can sort of see the Christmas connection if you squint.

Will viewers find them? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe American viewing patterns are changing and people are looking for new TV to watch during the holidays. Or maybe Syfy and History don’t care and hope viewers find the shows via streaming or on demand someday.

Yet these shows invite comparison in another way: Each attempts to grapple with this weird new TV storytelling era we’re in, where storylines become more massive without necessarily becoming more complex. And while Happy! is far from perfect, it ultimately has the better notion of how to navigate this new world.

Happy! is an ultraviolent series featuring a cartoon unicorn, so maybe you already know how you feel about it

Happy the unicorn is here for you.

Happy! is trying way too hard. The new hour-long action dramedy feels like being stuck on a long car trip with a bunch of film bros whose experience of cinematic history is limited entirely to Pulp Fiction and movies that attempted to copy Pulp Fiction (which is to say that they all own The Boondock Saints on Blu-ray). And these film bros have taken a hit of cocaine and quaffed three extra-large coffees. They’re ready and rarin’ to go, and maybe you were just hoping to take a nap.

But somewhere early in its second episode (I’ve only seen two), Happy! settles the hell down and becomes something darkly engaging. So much of this is thanks to its lead, Christopher Meloni, who plays Nick Sax, a brutal ex-cop turned hired gun who can handle himself in just about any situation. The interesting thing about Meloni is that he seems like he should be great at playing unscrupulous bastards, but there’s always something noble at his core, which feels like it’s fighting to peek out past the blood and guts. Thus, Nick — a disgraced man struggling for redemption (even if he’d never tell you that) — is a perfect Meloni role.

The gimmick of Happy! is that after Nick nearly dies from a gunshot wound, he wakes up being able to see a flying cartoon unicorn who gives the series its title. Happy, voiced by Patton Oswalt, is the imaginary friend of a little girl who’s been kidnapped by a man dressed as Santa Claus, who keeps the little girl in a box. There’s a deeper connection between Nick and the girl that Happy eventually reveals (and the series instantly becomes better once Nick has a reason to care about some random girl he’s never met), but she’s almost a plot device designed to bring Nick together with the cartoon unicorn of his dreams.

The interplay between Meloni and Oswalt is surprisingly delightful for a relationship created entirely in post-production, and the show is careful (in, granted, just two episodes) to never overplay the Happy card. Right when Nick has realized he can use this unicorn that nobody but him can see to cheat at cards, the series undercuts that idea with another gag or two or three. Episode two is much stronger than episode one, simply for having so much Nick-Happy interaction, and that’s a good sign that the series’ writers are leaning in to what works.

The series is based on a comic from writer Grant Morrison and artist Darick Robertson, and Morrison has transitioned to the TV series as a writer. It bears some of the hallmarks of his work, particularly in the frenetic way it keeps tossing out cool ideas and then abandoning them in favor of new cool ideas. (Marco Polo’s Patrick McManus serves as showrunner.) Perhaps even more evident as a sign of the show’s aesthetic is the pilot director, Brian Taylor, one of the guys behind the Crank movies; Happy! has those films’ wild, pell-mell sense of pace and jittery, overcaffeinated style.

But the series’ scripts are smart about undercutting the wild mayhem and constant introduction of new ideas with a bittersweet holiday angst. Nick is a little lonely, though he’d never tell you that, and the writers find smart ways to highlight that. And because the series starts small — with Nick trying to figure out just what he’s dealing with when it comes to Happy — it makes the way it gradually ramps up its level of serialization and world building more welcome than it otherwise would be.

Happy!, then, becomes a gross, flawed holiday treat. You might be stuck on that car ride with all those film bros, but you’re at least going home for Christmas. And isn’t that nice?

Happy debuts Wednesday, December 6, at 10 pm Eastern on Syfy.

Knightfall is all the worst of post-Game of Thrones hold on, I’m already falling asleep

At least there’s a cool pope!

The worst idea that TV has internalized from the success of Game of Thrones is that any series can just dive into massive, world-spanning stories from the word “go,” and audiences will instantly care about the characters in every corner of that world. Game of Thrones, after all, began with an episode that put all but a couple of its most important characters in the same location, and then gradually splintered them apart over the course of its first season. It became a massive, world-spanning series. It started out as a family drama.

Knightfall, alas, takes a fascinating true story (how King Philip IV of France used his wiles to drive the Knights Templar out of existence, up to and including burning a bunch of them at the stake) and drowns it under a heap of production values. I watched half the 10-episode miniseries — at least I assume it’s a miniseries, since it presumably ends with many of the characters being burned to death — and could only describe maybe one character beyond their most basic plot function and motivation.

Lead knight Landry (Tom Cullen) is the Good Guy. Pope Boniface VIII (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) is the Pope. King Philip (Ed Stoppard) is the Bad King. Only Philip’s wife, Joan (Olivia Ross) feels like she has more going on beneath the surface, and it’s telling that she’s one of the few characters given contradictory motivations and competing connections to the other characters.

Knightfall has to do so much and cover so much geographical ground that it never has time to settle down and let us watch the characters live, to feel like we exist within its world for an hour every week (a problem Game of Thrones has never had). The shots are perfunctory, designed to give us just enough information to keep following the story and nothing more. The performances are fine, but they rarely rise above BBC historical reenactment. The scripts are so wrapped up in explaining how everybody’s connected to everybody else that they become exhausting.

The sets and costumes are spectacular, and the series occasionally pulls off a vaguely exciting action sequence. And I’m told by those who braved the full season that some of its many plot threads start to become compelling very, very deep in its run. But that’s too little, too late for a show like this, which will air from week to week on History. (Maybe it’ll play better on streaming.)

History doesn’t even need to look to Game of Thrones or to Happy! (which starts small before expanding) to see just how badly Knightfall has been bungled. It already airs one of the better Game of Thrones-alikes in Vikings, a series that eventually broadened its scope to encompass much of the medieval world but started very pointedly as a small-town show where the characters occasionally visited strange, alien worlds just across the sea — like Little House on the Prairie crossed with Star Trek. Knightfall, on the other hand, is so intent on making sure we don’t get lost that it never gives us a reason to care.

Knightfall debuts Wednesday, December 6, at 10 pm Eastern on History.

Correction: The original version of this article identified the actor playing the pope as “Philip Carter.” His name is Jim Carter.

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