SyFy, like every other network, is perpetually on the hunt for ways to stand out in the age of Peak TV. As the competing networks behind shows like Preacher, American Horror Story, American Gods and Evil Dead have figured out, one way reliable method for rising above the clutter is to go bigger and crazier than everyone else. SyFy already tried that once this year with Blood Drive, a since-canceled homage to midnight grindhouse features of the past. Happy!, adapted from a Grant Morrison graphic novel, is their second go at it. I don’t know if it will fare any better or last any longer than Blood Drive. I’m not even sure the show will really be able to sustain its anarchic energy over a full season, but I’m going to like watching it try because the pilot which just aired last night has me hooked.
Christopher Meloni stars as Nick Sax, a disgraced cop who has spiraled into a life of booze and drugs, all paid for by the money he brings in through his new gig as a brutal hitman. The abuse finally catches up to him when he suffers a heart attack while completing a job, causing him to pass out face down on the pavement right next to his latest victim. He wakes up to this strange creature staring down at him in the back of an ambulance:
That’s Happy, an energetic, eternally optimistic, bucktoothed unicorn-donkey hybrid voiced by Patton Oswalt. Nick naturally assumes Happy, who won’t shut up about needing to save some little girl named Hailey, is a drug-induced hallucination. After all, no one else can see him, and we get the impression Nick’s probably already seen plenty of strange things under the influence. But we know Happy is, for lack of a better word, real because he gets his own POV sequence swooping through the snowy, sin-filled city in search of Nick before finding him in the ambulance. Happy, it turns out, is actually Hailey’s imaginary friend, and he needs Nick’s help to rescue her from the clutches of a demented old man dressed as Santa Claus. Why exactly Nick’s the only other person beside Hailey who can see Happy is a question which will linger over the season.
This bonkers premise plays like Drop Dead Fred/Imaginary Mary meets Crank. There’s the adult-interacts-with-imaginary-friend comedy of the former melded with the kinetic, hyper-violent visual aesthetic of the latter. It’s no surprise, then, to learn Happy! was adapted for the small screen by Morrison and Crank co-director Brian Taylor, who also directed the pilot. As THR put it, “Taylor’s style is one of aesthetic urgency that covers for the questionable urgency of the narrative, which is a familiar mixture of hitman tropes mixed with gangster torture tropes mixed with child endangerment tropes, all run through a holiday season blender that saturates everything in green and red flashing lights and buries the sounds of gunshots, bludgeonings and screams of pain in a medley of Christmas carols.”
While Happy continually nudges Nick toward saving Hailey, he has his own problems to deal with in the form of a corrupt police force, scheming mobsters, torture-loving enforcers, and an ex-partner (Lili Mirojnick) who finds him to be an eternal disappointment. All of the plots will, I assume, eventually converge, but not before the practically pain-immune Nick has brutalized anyone who gets in his way. He’s like the Garth Ennis Punisher mixed with Max Payne, brilliantly realized thanks to Christopher Meloni’s newfound zest for giving himself over to cartoonish abandon. Anyone familiar with his genius, go-for-broke turns in the various Wet Hot American Summer iterations will love him here. Happy, so adorably animated and engagingly voiced by Oswalt, can barely keep up with him.
The presence of a cartoon sidekick, of course, is just the carrot to get us interested. Happy!’s real calling card is going to be its violence, which is pushed about as far it possibly can be on basic cable. In one particularly over the top moment, Nick uses a fire extinguisher to smash a victim’s skull (the smashing is more heard than seen) and then uses the extinguisher’s hose to mimic the motion of peeing on the poor guy’s corpse, all while a blood-covered, pain-loving mob enforcer looks on with almost sexual glee.
After scenes like that, we don’t actually need there to be a floating, cartoon character reacting in disgust to such horrific displays to fully get that this show is all just one big live-action cartoon for adults, directed especially toward genre lovers, late night pot smokers and/or both. Happy! repeatedly says sayonara to good taste and restraint, which is a surefire way to ensure it will stick in our memories. Whether there’s going to be anything more to it than an endless parade of holy shit moments remains to be seen, but it certainly makes Happy! out to be a show which knows its audience and will ride Meloni’s still underappreciated comic genius as far as he will take it.
What about you? Where do you fall on Happy!? Let me know in the comments.