TV Rewind: How Happy Endings Was Ahead of Its Time—and Ready for a Comeback

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TV Rewind: How <i>Happy Endings</i> Was Ahead of Its Time&#8212;and Ready for a Comeback

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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If anyone has ever tried to convince you to watch Happy Endings, they’ve probably described it as “a hangout comedy like Friends, but better!” or “a perfectly written show that only gets funnier every season.” Okay, you caught me—those are direct quotes from yours truly, but I stand by it. (Especially the part about it being better than Friends). The beloved ABC comedy about a group of truly weird pals in Chicago only lasted three perfect seasons, from 2011-2013, but has amassed a cultish following in the years since its cancellation.

During this year’s pandemic lockdown it even got the Zoom reunion treatment, with the cast gathering for a brand new episode set in quarantine—the result was arguably better than the reunions of favorites like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. It was seeing my friends back together onscreen, living through 2020 while still managing to get into ridiculous predicaments over video chat, that prompted me to revisit the series from the beginning. This is something I rarely do, even for my most favorite shows. But when I started, I was immediately reminded of how genuinely funny, well-crafted, and ahead of its time the show was.

Happy Endings was a critical darling, and has always been lauded for its three-dimensional characters. Max (Adam Pally) is gay but doesn’t fit naturally into the four walls of a stereotype; several episodes are spent interrogating which “type of gay” he is, without a straightforward conclusion. Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.), the only Black character in the main cast, is a goofy and heartfelt investment banker, and often the emotional center of the group. Penny (Casey Wilson) is a clumsy romantic who could easily be one-note, but is rounded out by a job she’s great at, a complicated family history, and a condo that2020-me is envious of.

The show pushes boundaries even beyond the careful craft of unique characters. Watching it in 2020 amidst a reckoning with diversity only solidified how progressive Happy Endings was for its time, and subtly highlights how much its contemporaries were running in place. The writers consciously featured cultural appropriation, inequalities within gender roles and racial injustice—conversations that seem to have only just started to take shape recently—and flipped them on their heads.

In the third season’s “More Like Stanksgiving,” Dave (Zachary Knighton) claims to be one-sixteenth Navajo, and is determined to throw the group an authentic Native American Thanksgiving. He barters his tassled suede jacket for the clams needed for his feast, and laments the fate of his ancestors who engaged in similar unequal trades. The cashier is quick to remind Dave that he is, in fact, white.

Happy Endings isn’t the first comedy to try to use Native American heritage to their advantage: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt famously gave a (white) character a Lakota tribe backstory, only to receive immense backlash at the careless representation. But on Happy Endings, the comedy comes from the ridiculous nature of Dave’s claim. While the group doesn’t dissect the offensiveness of Dave’s 23-and-me epiphany, they are quietly rolling their eyes and poking fun at how dumb he sounds. They let him continue on this path—not because it’s okay, but because they get sick pleasure from seeing their friends do questionable things.

Within the gang, Brad and Jane (Eliza Coupe) are the golden couple—the Coach and Tami Taylor of the Happy Endings universe, if you will, but with way more sex. Not only are Brad and Jane obsessed with each other, but they’re also incredibly supportive of each others’ interests and pursuits, even when it doesn’t fall in line with societal expectations. After Brad loses his job at the beginning of Season 3, Jane has no problem stepping up as the breadwinner in the relationship until Brad finds a new job, even relishing the power that comes with it. When Brad finally does land a CFO role (that is, Chief Fun Officer at a childcare center), Jane is quick to come around to valuing his happiness over finances.

Perhaps most striking is the way that Happy Endings addressed race head-on in 2011. The fact that Jane and Brad are an interracial couple isn’t lost on the writers or the actors. Instead of taking a “we don’t see color” approach, obvious mentions of race are baked into their cooing pet names and everyday experiences (on a date night in Season 1, Brad laments that their food is taking longer than other tables because they’re “black on blonde”).

Happy Endings comedically highlighted the plights of marginalized groups, and was unafraid of showing the twisted dynamic between police officers and Black people, though nothing ever escalated to deathly heights. The cold open of the tenth episode “Bo Fight” juxtaposes Brad’s experiences as a Black man to Max’s as a gay man. Brad complains that he can’t get a taxi even while wearing a $1200 suit, while Max tries to one-up him by citing his inability to get married. By episode’s end Brad proves his point when a police officer investigates a theft in Alex’s store, and the cop accuses Bradsolely because of his skin color.

In the second season’s “Grinches Be Crazy,” Jane accidentally gives their vacation money to their housekeeper. When she tries to swap it back for the intended amount, the housekeeper thinks the money has been stolen and calls the police. Jane initially blames Brad to keep her hands clean, which sets up a beautiful exchange between Brad and a police officer: “You were going to lead me away based on nothing … but Gwyneth Paltrow over here confesses and she just gets to sort it out by talking?” Brad asks. “I don’t make the rules,” the officer responds. Chef’s kiss.

Obviously within a serialized network comedy such as this, the stakes are significantly lower than those unfolding in real life this year, but the casual mentions of institutionalized racism just showcase how prevalent it has always been in society and how easily so many of us turned a blind eye to it. Seeing it in the context of 2020 is slightly jarring: we laughed at the jokes but never took time to internalize what we were laughing at.

I didn’t plan on making this piece a plea for a network or streaming service to pick up Happy Endings for a fourth season, but ultimately I can think of no greater time for a comedy with this level of smarts, awareness, and joke velocity in its DNA to make a comeback.

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Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.

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