Article / Tucker May

Sitcom Microscope : How ABC’s Happy Endings Goes New School . . . By Being Old School

In the last decade or so, the television sitcoms available to you and me as remote-wielding, oxygen-breathing, butt-imprint-in-couches-leaving human beings have undergone a pretty big shift. This isn’t hard to notice, as the dwindling number of multi-cameras (a la Two and a Half Men) and the surge in single-cams (like The Office or The League) are readily evident to anyone who can type tvguide.com. Laugh tracks have started to evaporate and television comedy is more cinematic than it has ever been.

This isn’t inherently a good or a bad thing. It’s important to point out because it has been accompanied by a shift in the style of the comedy within the show themselves. Watch any episode of 30 Rock or Arrested Development and you’ll immediately pick up on how it’s different from Cheers or Wings. Multi-cameras tend to be faster-paced and a bit more frenetic, (which makes sense considering that the characters aren’t obliged to pause 10 seconds for audience guffaws) and be pumped full of quick throwaway jokes that might only click on repeated viewings (which makes sense considering that nowadays you can go to Hulu and watch the same episode of Parks and Rec on repeat until your eyes bleed — you know, if you want).

ABC’s Happy Endings is very much a new-age sitcom, in that it’s shot single-camera and approaches joke-telling in the same way that guy from Home Alone approached shooting people:

(Rapid-fire. Get it?)

What makes Happy Endings stand out in TV’s current batch of single-cams is that it whole-heartedly embraces its multi-camera sitcom roots. Instead of desperately inventing increasingly kooky and less-plausible storylines to retain its momentum (looking at you, 30 Rock‘s Jenna-decides-the-presidential-election-via-Jimmy-Buffet-fan-knockoffs), Happy Endings gleefully says, ‘You remember all those old sitcom tropes? Watch us go nuts on ’em!’

Happy Endings is at its best when the writers plop their trademark pun-happy, rant-friendly banter onto a relatively familiar sitcom scenario, then let the high energy actors tap dance all over it. That’s what I want to see. It lets the audience focus on the mile-a-minute dialogue, (which is where their best jokes are) rather than crazy scenarios like, ‘Oh, so that’s Alex and Jane’s previously unmentioned foreign grandma who suddenly appeared and made them do the sister-friendship-restoring dance . . . wait, what?‘ I’d go so far as to say the closer the plot stays to well-mined sitcom territory, the better the show is — and that’s certainly not a knock on the show! Every sitcom ever has borrowed heavily from its predecessors. And that’s because people have been producing sitcoms long enough that we know what works and what doesn’t.

For the most part, Happy Endings seems to recognize what it’s good at: fast-paced, off-the-wall goofiness. They relish the fact that they lean heavily on standard sitcom setups and the way the characters acknowledge their “classic group hangs” is one example of how they wink at it. In a recent episode, an entire storyline springs from Max being upset that he doesn’t neatly fit into one of the classic sitcom ‘clumps’ that allows a group of 6 or so friends to all be included in 2 or 3 separate adventures.

Happy Endings works its magic ultimately not because it’s blisteringly funnier than the competition or because it’s hyperspeed humor is so much smarter than everyone else’s, but because they have done a better job of figuring out how to take a winning formula and make it their own. Too many single-cams get caught up in escalating external absurdity or get unnecessarily complex due to their tendency to be higher-concept. Happy Endings is perfectly satisfied with the standard sitcom premise of, ‘Look! These buddies all live close together!’ — to the point where the original “premise” (what happens to the guy who gets left at the altar in all those rom-coms) is basically relegated to the occasional reference to how Dave and Alex used to be engaged by the second season.

It’s abundantly clear that the actors enjoy themselves on set (read more about that in this Grantland article) and the more the focus rests on letting the audience in on that fun, the more successful the show is. 

All in all, Happy Endings isn’t trying to match the reassuring predictability of Cheers or the will-they-won’t-they drama of Ross and Rachel — it’s just comfortably and unashamedly standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before it, and doing a much better job of it than most single-cams.

Follow Tucker on Twitter : @TuckaMay

2 thoughts on “Sitcom Microscope : How ABC’s Happy Endings Goes New School . . . By Being Old School

  1. I can’t believe I’m being this sad, but I am an adicdt! Where can I buy series 2 from? I came across series 1 quite by chance and ended up buying it but the BBC doesn’t give me any clue as to where I can buy series 2 from.The last time I was this adicdted to a radio programme was when I was 17. I am becoming sorely tempted by promises of free downloads. Help! In case you hadn’t guessed I think it’s brilliant!

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