THE BLOG
10/17/2012 04:37 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

'Happy Endings' Review, With A Side Of 'Suburgatory' And 'Don't Trust The B----'

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Hooray, it's the start of the television season.

I can guess your reaction: "Wait, what? The fall TV season started weeks ago!" Sure, it did, but what got the most attention in September were the debuts of new programs. For TV critics and viewers alike, it's a month spent speed-dating: You spend a lot of time on entities you don't know very well and hope for the best, knowing that the chances of a long-term connection arising from this period of insanity are slim indeed.

What many of us spent the last month not-so-secretly longing for are the return of shows we already know are good. "Vegas," shmegas: I'm sure I'm not the only one who was most excited about the return of "Homeland" (Saul! Beards! Super-inconvenient phone calls! Claire Danes' unstoppable cry face!) and "The Good Wife" (though I share June Thomas' deep dismay about the clunkiness of the Kalinda storyline this season).

But those are dramas -- i.e., they sometimes force my brain to engage or experience feelings other than mirth. So the season, for me anyway, really begins when a critical mass of good comedy is on the air.

All of that is a long way of saying, Hail, "Suburgatory" (9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, ABC), thank you for returning. "Happy Endings" (9 p.m. ET Tuesday, ABC), thank you for restoring my will to live, or for doing so when you return in a few days.

I somehow found a way to get through the last six months without the "Happy Endings" gang, but I won't lie to you -- it wasn't easy. As I said in this week's Talking TV podcast, if the television gods saw fit to put 20 new episodes of "Happy Endings" on my DVR every week, I would watch them all.

It wouldn't matter if they weren't all perfect; that phrase "critical mass" applies here too. "Happy Endings" has so many things going for it that the occasional weak story line or meh scene is not a big deal at all. It's one of the sharpest and warm-hearted comedies on the air, and I enjoy it a lot more than "Modern Family," which, as Emily Nussbaum pointed out, is a lot less modern and a lot more mean-spirited at times than people think.

Here are just a few of the things I've missed while "Happy Endings" has been away:

  • The gang's rapid-fire dialogue. In the hands of lesser sitcoms, speedy dialogue can become annoying, if not exhausting. If you're going to have your characters speak in ways that people don't normally talk most of the time, make it worth my while -- make it funny, fill it with surprises and left turns, and make the dialogue tailored to each character. "Happy Endings" does all that, and it knows when to pull back, too; the rhythms vary in pleasing ways. Eliza Coupe, who plays the ultra-Type A Jane, is particularly brilliant at pulling back and just letting an intense look or a couple of words communicate that Jane could quite easily take over and run a mid-sized dictatorship, if she set her mind on that. The dialogue and the performance meld perfectly to convince you of the ruthless efficiency of the Kerkovich Way.
  • Casey Wilson's physical comedy. I laughed out loud, a lot, at several of Penny's physical gags in the Oct. 30 episode. Wilson's gawky Penny is endearing in a lot of ways, but nobody on TV falls better than Wilson.
  • Max's shamelessness. Max was the first "Happy Endings" character to seem like a fully realized person, and Adam Pally has only made him more goofily charming along the way. I especially like that there's been no real attempt made to clean Max up or get him a real job. He's still lazy, self-absorbed and sloppy, and yet so sharp and so much fun that you can see why these people hang out with him. Another plus: Max is gay, but that doesn't make him the bearer of a Very Special Status. His love life gets no more or less attention than anyone else's.
  • The show's interesting treatment of race. A lot of shows have a token person of color, and for the show's entire run, that person's cultural history or race is either ignored or tiptoed around. "Happy Endings" doesn't go this route, thank goodness. Both "New Girl" and "Happy Endings" actually use ethnic identity for comedic purposes on occasion, and once in a while, they point out that racially based humor isn't always cool; there are times when white characters appropriate slang or do impressions that cross a line, and Brad on "Happy Endings" or Winston on "New Girl" quietly call them out on their behavior. TV is very often afraid of characters of color: Too often the instinct is to make them noble, marginal or essentially colorless, and "Happy Endings" recognizes that we don't live in that world. People have all kinds of friends, and sometimes we make effective jokes about our friends' histories and cultures, and sometimes we don't. It's not the end of the world to talk about these kind of things -- or joke about them -- and that approach feels modern (unlike "Modern Family's" distressingly regular use of stereotypes). Speaking of successful sitcoms, people still occasionally compare "Happy Endings" to "Friends," but "Friends" rarely got within 10 miles of any of that.
  • The show's "whatever" approach to romance. There are developments on the Dave and Alex front this season, but the fact that they're back together does not mean that the characters are devouring the majority of the screen time, thank goodness. I like the low-key, goofy vibe that Zachary Knighton and Elisha Cuthbert bring to their characters (Cuthbert in particular has made Alex's dorky dumbness extremely winning), and I'm glad the show hasn't forgotten that they work as individuals, not just as two halves of a couple.
What works about the ABC comedies in particular is the mixture of warmth and wit they all have; they're generally up-to-date without seeming cynical or mean, and they're upbeat without seeming Pollyanna-ish. "Suburgatory," the show returning tonight, isn't quite in the same league as "Happy Endings," but I hope it gets there this season (as it occasionally did in its first season)

As "Suburgatory" developed the world of Chatswin and the people in it, it grew into quite a gem last season. One of the best things about "Happy Endings," however, is how the character relationships all work -- each combination of characters brings its own pleasures. "Suburgatory," as Ryan McGee and I discussed in this week's Talking TV podcast, isn't quite there yet. Alan Tudyk's character, Noah, has always seemed like an odd fit as George's best friend: Noah is often portrayed as a grasping, greedy Yuppie, but George is nothing like that. Why George is friends with this selfish guy isn't readily apparent, and if the show wants to mock superficial suburbanites, there other targets available.

Let me be clear: Alan Tudyk is a very funny man, and within the confines of this show his character has been amusing on occasion. But a more multi-dimensional, interesting Noah would be a great addition to Chatswin's roster of endearing weirdos and goofballs (one subplot I love centers around Tessa's friend Malik's ongoing obsession with the TV show "Medium"). I've praised Carly Chaikin as the affectless Dalia, but Allie Grant is unheralded and stealthily great; her insecure yet wily character, fellow teen Lisa Shay, most successfully unites the satire and the sweetness that the show is often going for.

Finally, there's "Don't Trust the B--- in Apt. 23," which also returns Tuesday. This show only occasionally works, and I increasingly think it would have been a better bet as an animated show. Krysten Ritter's overly hammy, broad performance as the selfish Chloe is pretty distracting in the show's season premiere, but it's not hard to understand why most of the show's actors go to that place, given that most of the characters are written as loud, one-dimensional types.

That might work if the show were on Adult Swim or Comedy Central, but here I think we're meant to bond at least a little with Chloe and her earnest roommate, June. But Chloe's occasional forays into human compassion seem forced and out of step with every other way she's characterized, and June's agitated responses to the mayhem Chloe creates isn't funny enough to make up for the show's lack of depth.

But James Van Der Beek is still amusingly committed to sending up his B-list vanity, and, like an animated show, the season premiere is full of zippy cameos. Frankie Muniz, Busy Phillipps and, most effectively, Mark-Paul Gosselaar all play versions of themselves, which might be a good direction for the show to pursue: Former Teen Star Theatre?

Cast members talk here about what's to come on Season 2 of "Suburgatory."

Ryan McGee and I discuss "Suburgatory" in the Talking TV podcast below (along with "Hunted," "Emily Owens, M.D." and "American Horror Story: Asylum."). More Talking TV podcasts can be found here and on iTunes.

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