At this year's Emmys, HBO, AMC, and Netflix will get kudos for their quality programming, but network television deserves praise where praise is due. During its short, three-season run, ABC’s Happy Endings was the funniest show on television.
For those of you not familiar with Happy Endings, the show began with Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) ditching her wedding to her best friend Dave (Zachary Knighton). The show’s first season covered the fallout of Alex's decision within the couple's friend group. As the show moved along and began to figure out its voice, it became something entirely different. It took the familiar sitcom premise of "a bunch of thirtysomethings live together in a major American metropolitan area" and turned it on its head. By the end of its low-rated run, Happy Endings could have best been described as meta-Friends. It gleefully combined the best of both old and new television comedy: it was filled with inside jokes that required the viewing of multiple episodes, yet it was also a show that could be picked up from wherever.
While it looked like a bright, sunny network sitcom, the most surprising thing about Happy Endings is that it was a completely different show from week to week. Sometimes, it was a sports-movie spoof in the form of a kickball game. Other times, it took an elaborate prank war and turned it into an homage to The Usual Suspects. Other times, it just threw in some backstory (it turns out that all of the characters were once on The Real World together). No matter how ridiculous an individual plot sounded, it ended up making sense.
Whenever I watched Happy Endings, I was always curious as to what kind of creative mind could possibly string this show together. Happy Endings had some of the most elaborate plots on television. It reminds me of Community, another network sitcom that was unfairly ignored by the Emmys (I’m pretending that season four didn’t happen). The half-hour sitcom is changing, and in response, the Emmys have decided to leave out most pure comedies. While Girls and Louie may be the pinnacle of television as an art form, they never have the laugh-per-minute factor that Happy Endings had, and they don't intend to, either. The Emmys may have to create yet another category to recognize comedies like Happy Endings.
Happy Endings was quietly changing the half-hour form as much as its cable counterparts. The show knocked down just about every stereotype on television. It featured a gay man who liked pizza more than fashion (Max, played by Adam Pally, who will now be a series regular on The Mindy Project), and a woman (Jane, played by Eliza Coupe, who deserves her own show) who is more of an alpha male than her own husband (Damon Wayans Jr., who might be the funniest member of the Wayans family yet). Happy Endings also had one of the best ensembles on television. I can never pinpoint who my favorite character is. Viewing the show is like watching an incredibly skilled improv troupe: each actor knows how to play off the others, and even more importantly, when it is their turn to be funny.
Happy Endings proved that it wasn’t necessary to be on cable in order to do something unique. If anything, it proved that some brilliant comedy can come out of trying to beat the censors. Some of its innuendoes were as good as any that Arrested Development became famous for during its original run on FOX. With the exception of 30 Rock, the comedies representing network television at the Emmys this year, Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, rely on formula and familiarity.
While the show’s low ratings were always upsetting for loyal fans, they were understandable. The rapid-fire dialogue of Happy Endings is better suited for DVR and Hulu viewings than it is for broadcast television. While it is unfortunate that Emmy voters missed their last chance to honor this unique show, that does not mean that Happy Endings will simply fade away. Perhaps, years down the road, Happy Endings will be revisited, and future viewers will be mystified as to why it was once ignored.