In a second-season episode of “Happy Endings,” the much-loved but little-watched comedy that ran on ABC from 2011 to 2013, the show acknowledged a comparison that had been dogging it since its premiere.
Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), loopy and slurring from a megadose of laughing gas at a dentist’s appointment, perks up when he sees his friends — but he calls them by the names of another set of friends. Pointing in turn to Dave (Zachary Knighton), Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), Penny (Casey Wilson) and Max (Adam Pally), Brad exclaims: “Hey, Ross! Rachel! Phoebe! Fat Joey!” A few beats later, he turns to his wife, Jane (Eliza Coupe), and pouts, “Don’t patronize me, Monica.”
Yes, “Happy Endings” had superficial similarities to “Friends,” the ’90s Must-See TV juggernaut: It centered on six BFFs, played by a cast with blazing chemistry and crack timing, entering their 30s and razzing one another through the ups and downs of dating and careers in the big city. An on-again, off-again romantic relationship within the gang was an ongoing plot driver. And, true, the pilot episode involved a runaway bride. (The creator David Caspe has claimed to have forgotten that Rachel Green entered our lives in a wedding dress.)
So it was probably inevitable that some critics initially dismissed “Happy Endings” as a “Friends” knockoff, lumping it in with a wave of now-forgotten ensemble sitcoms that the networks rolled out around the same time. (Remember “Perfect Couples”? “Mad Love”? “Traffic Light”? You have no reason to.)
Yet granting that “Happy Endings” bears a resemblance to “Friends,” it also has the markings of a post-“30 Rock” world. Caspe and company apply elements of that workplace sitcom to their hangout comedy format — single-camera filming, a relentless jokes-per-minute rate, absurdist cutaway gags and a cast of lovable characters who are terrible people.
This is a heightened reality, closer in sensibility to later shows like “Broad City” than to strait-laced studio-audience comedies. Not every network sitcom would make a running joke of Alex’s adoption of a racist parrot, or have Max and Penny get hooked on a black-market cough syrup called NocheTussin as a way to keep from texting their boyfriends too much. (Unlike “Friends,” “Happy Endings” actually has gay main characters, not just gay jokes.)
The show opens as the flighty Alex runs out on her wedding to the blando Dave, leaving the rest of the wedding party to fear that the whole gang will have to break up. It takes about half of the show’s 13-episode first season (it premiered as a midseason replacement) for the writers to get themselves out of that pilot-episode trap, though ABC made it feel longer by airing the season out of its intended order.
One’s ability to watch them in the correct sequence today — there are many guides online — is just one reason “Happy Endings” feels so right in the streaming era. (All three seasons are on Hulu.) I watched and liked the show when it aired, at least partly because it’s set in my own city of Chicago, but I’ve probably seen the whole series at least five times and some favorite episodes in the double digits, finding new bits to admire on every rewatch.
I’ll tell myself I’m putting it on as a background show, but before 22 minutes are up, it has my full attention. Here are three reasons I can’t quit “Happy Endings.”
The characters weren’t fully formed at the starting line; it took a chunk of the first season before traits like Jane’s maniacal Type-A competitiveness or Penny’s desperate optimism came into focus. But the writers deftly employed smash-cut flashbacks to fill in the gang’s back stories, like when Penny dated a closeted Max in college. The “Remember that time?” setups also echo the real way anecdotes get repeated forever among longtime friend groups.
Sometimes whole episodes are devoted to revealing the gang’s origin stories. In the third season’s Thanksgiving episode, we finally see the first time the group met: when Brad and Max were housemates on an un-aired season of MTV’s “The Real World.” The flashbacks offer a sharp parody of that reality show’s aesthetic and of early-aughts fashion.
Hyper-efficient bit delivery
Some episodes of “Happy Endings” lay out complex, Rube Goldberg-style plots that pull the whole cast toward a grand climax. Others offer simpler, sillier character showcases. Either way, the bits are dense. The writers layer jokes on jokes on jokes, many of which coil in on themselves to hit three or four consecutive punch lines, pop culture references, or clever bits of wordplay.
The cast delivers it all in a crisp, rat-a-tat style, and the editing is so tight that reaction shots manage to serve as overlapping mini-jokes. (Coupe and Wilson are the queens of this.) The pace rewards rewatching, as there’s always likely to be something — a fleeting one-liner, a visual gag — you didn’t fully appreciate the last time through.
Everyone’s in on the joke
My partner loves to point out that nothing delights me more than a little light fourth-wall breaking, and “Happy Endings” loves a subtle demonstration of self-awareness. The “Friends” reference isn’t the only time the show has acknowledged its critics. In that same episode, Penny relates a complaint from a recent ex about a personalized pronunciation she leaned on in early episodes: “And he said he hates when I say ah-mah-zing, but I’ve barely said that at all this season!”
Max, confused: “You mean winter?”
“Yeah. It’s more of a summer word.”
Consider also Brad’s awed review of the similarly motor-mouthed “Gilmore Girls”: “They talk so fast on that show.” Or stew on the implications of Brad’s response to Jane’s insistence that a vision board helped her land him: “Well technically, she didn’t have me on the board. It was just a picture of one of the guys from ‘In Living Color.’”
These are the things that keep me coming back to “Happy Endings.” In fact, now is a great time to begin again.