Happy!
US TV

Third-episode verdict: Happy! (US: Syfy)

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, Syfy

Dadaism only goes so far. Sure, it’s all very fun to stick something incongruous into a new setting to expose its conventions and absurdities. But then what? Sooner or later either everyone will stop looking because they’ve got the idea and decided it’s silly or they’ll get inured to it and accept it.

Which is a bit of a problem for arch-Dadaist Grant Morrison, whose new show Happy! gives us an alcoholic, ex-cop, elite hitman played by Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) being helped to find a missing child by her imaginary friend – a tiny, talking, flying blue unicorn called Happy.

Incongruous, no?

(I should, incidentally, point out here that Happy is quite clearly one of the fabled unidonkeys, not a unicorn. He’s the same colour as Eeyore, he acts like a donkey and just look at those ears, look at those teeth, look at those hooves – he’s a donkey, who just happens to have a horn and wings. Which is cool, since donkeys are much better than stupid old horses.)

The trouble with the show’s first episode was that when you’d accepted that incongruity and that there was a not completely imaginary unidonkey paired up with an indestructible, ultraviolent hitman dishing out pithy self-deprecating, self-hating one-liners, there wasn’t much more to it. Okay, you’ve made your point, Mr Morrison – what now? Ah, just a load of clichés and two-dimensional characters. Gotcha.

A Dadaist universe

Since then, though, the writing’s been in the hands of those with a different ontological perspective of the world to Morrison, one in which character and plotting are of greater interest than simple subversion of genre. Episodes two and three have filled in the backstory of Meloni’s character, as well as those of supporting characters such as Meloni’s ex-wives, while also turning Happy from just a CGI idea of a character into one you can actually care about. Indeed, he’s now just so cute, funny and adorable, so kind and caring of his young best friend, that I’m still traumatised by the ending of the third episode, a good three hours after having watched it.

I hope that poor little unidonkey is okay. Please let him be okay.

Meloni? Not so much. Well, at all, in fact. But at least it’s clear that Meloni is the way he is because he stared too long into the abyss of human depravity and it looked back at him, and that Happy and his quest offer him the chance at redemption and a walk back from the edge to the point where we might like him.

The show is also slowly pivoting from a show with one Dadaist idea into one with a Dadaist universe, episode three giving us a lapdancing club frequented only by department store Santas for example (“No one knows where they came from – they just started turning up one day”). That obviously has the downside of turning Happy’s presence from the show’s sole incongruity to just one of many, but having a whole weird universe to play is far more appealing than simply watching a unidonkey fly around over the top of an old episode of Law & Order, which is what Happy! would have been otherwise.

Happy! is also playing a little with storytelling. Episode three is replete with flashbacks, and the show finds a relatively novel way of showing them that also enables it to comment on the story. It’s not exactly the middle episodes of Limitless, but it’s a sign the show hasn’t shot its entire load of imagination with Happy.

Conclusion

Despite my initial reservations about Happy!, I’m going to stick with it. Although the cop stories that form the b-stories of the episode are tedious and Meloni’s constant nihilism grates, Happy at least is worth watching, as is the expanding universe around him. It’s also a gutsy show to be telling a story about an implied mentally ill paedophile Santa abducting children and dosing them up on drugs this close to Christmas. It needs our support.

Barrometer rating: 2

The Barrometer for Happy

Happy!
US TV

Review: Happy! 1×1 (US: Syfy)

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, Syfy

Grant Morrison is one of those comic book writers who started off well but who began to feed on his own reputation over time, almost to the point where he’s just reputation. Back in the late 80s/early 90s, he was part of the post-Alan Moore surge in DC comics with more adult writing. While Neil Gaiman was off giving us the Endless in Sandman, Morrison was dishing up Animal Man and Doom Patrol, which was full of people with multiple personality disorders and characters who were actually streets (yes, you read that correctly).

After that, he was allowed to do pretty much anything he liked, which usually involved reading lots of comics and resurrecting characters you’d never heard of so that he can undermine genre. Fancy a comic featuring the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh? Of course you don’t, but Morrison brought him back anyway.

Batman of Zur En Arrh

Zurenarrh

His most recent project of note was an attempt to retell Wonder Woman’s origin story. But while Morrison talked a lot about all the research he did, reading feminist texts such as The Second Sex and trying to put the sexy back into her storyline, Wonder Woman: Earth One was really just Morrison playing around with genre conventions without adding much.

Happy?

And so it seems to be with Happy!, Morrison’s adaptation of his own, original comic Happy!. It sees Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) playing a disgraced cop turned hitman who gets shot and left for dead. But when he’s restored to life by paramedics, he finds that he can now see a flying blue unicorn called Happy (Patton Oswalt). Yes, you read that correctly.

Happy!

Happy wants Meloni to help a little girl called Hailey, who’s been kidnapped by a man dressed as Santa Claus. But is Happy real or a figment of Meloni’s imagination? And if he is real, who’s Hailey and why does Happy want to help her?

Self-examining

These two questions are the most interesting aspects of a show that is otherwise just the standard Morrison semi-comedic, semi-serious messing around with genre and convention. Meloni gets good lines and some of the violence is graphically innovative, if massively implausible. Everything else is cliché, though. There are crime bosses with secrets, there’s a good cop who might also be a bad cop (Lili Mirojnick) and everyone has as much depth of characterisation as the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, even Meloni. Not one character revelation will surprise you. You probably won’t even laugh much.

Even the bits with Happy aren’t that good. He just flies around and chats. He doesn’t advance the plot really, doesn’t have any great insights or talents. He’s not even that funny. He’s there… because he’s a blue flying unicorn and isn’t that a great meta, incongruent concept for a dark corrupt cop storyline that makes you re-evaluate its genre underpinnings? Hey? Hey?

That said, I did like the idea that (spoiler) Happy isn’t Meloni’s imaginary friend, but is actually Hailey’s, Hailey being Meloni’s daughter, which at least opens up some possibilities for future storylines that won’t simply be either deliberate cliché or an attempt to undermine cliché by being silly. I guess it’ll probably be a “road to redemption” storyline with a hint of It’s A Wonderful Life crossed with Harvey, but there are worse things in the world than that.

Meloni is great, although playing it as much for laughs as Morrison is. Aside from the impressive Patrick Fischler as a torturer, the supporting cast are unimpressive, but at least they won’t screw it up. The CGI needs work, mind, so maybe Happy can sit down for a bit.

Not Happy!

There’s enough potential in Happy!‘s story that I’m prepared to try a couple more episodes. But this feels less like an original new story that needs to be told, more like an intellectual exercise in sub-Daliesque dadaism than it needs to be to support a whole series.

Marvel's Runaways
US TV

Fourth-episode verdict: Marvel’s Runaways (US: Hulu)

In the US: Tuesdays, Hulu

Top-tier reviewers like me adore making analogies and ‘meets’ to help readers quickly understand what a show is like: “It’s Fawlty Towers meets I, Claudius“, “It’s Friends meets Black Hawk Down“, “It’s The Full Monty meets Top Gear“. You can probably imagine shows like that already, even though I’ve not named them and as far as I know, they don’t exist. But you can still imagine them.

Sometimes, that’s not helpful though. If I said Marvel’s Runaways is “Gossip Girl meets The Breakfast Club meets the second season of DC Legend’s of Tomorrow“, that’s pretty accurate but I’m not sure you’d be any wiser for the analogy. In fact, you’d probably be baffled. My bad.

So, let’s take this slowly. There are six kids, now in High School, who 10 years ago were great friends through their parents, who are among the country’s great and the good. However, following some tragic ‘incidents’ that occurred back then, the friends no longer speak to one another and have all been affected in different ways. Now one of them, Rhenzy Feliz, wants to get the gang back together and Magnificent Seven-like, he goes to them each in turn. There’s goth Lyrica Okano; social justice warrior Ariela Barer; lacrosse player Gregg Sulkin; the younger, more positive Allegra Acosta; and pretty church zealot Virginia Gardner.

With a bit of emotional blackmail, he succeeds. Unfortunately, the newly reunited group soon discover that they have far greater concerns: their parents, who seem to be getting up to all manner of weird things in each other basements. So weird and even illegal, one would have to surmise that they’re actually… super villains. But it turns out that each of the kids might have super-skills of their own that they’re just growing into. If they unite together they might be able to stop their parents from doing some truly awful things – if only they knew what those were…

Continue reading “Fourth-episode verdict: Marvel’s Runaways (US: Hulu)”

No Activity
US TV

Third-episode verdict: No Activity (US: CBS All Access)

In the US: Sundays, CBS All Access

I think Patrick Brammall has a plan for world domination. I really do. He was certainly doing his best to take over Australia, with The Moodys and then Upper Middle Bogan. Then there was Glitch, in which he was the lead, but that didn’t stop him from cameoing in The Letdown.

But that wasn’t enough for him, oh no. Then he tried his luck in the US with appearances in Life In Pieces and New Girl, as well two pilots: Furst Born and a remake of Upper Middle Bogan (what would they have called that, I wonder?).

Apparently, that still wasn’t enough for Brammall, because he also decided that as well as acting in TV shows, he’d start writing them, too. His first effort was No Activity, an award-winning comedy cop show that’s so far run for two seasons on Australian streaming service Stan and is going to start its third season this week. He co-created it and starred in it, too.

Enough? Never. Not for the Bond villain-esque Brammall. He naturally took the show to America and is now starring in and co-writing an adaptation that is now airing on US streaming service CBS All Access.

Continue reading “Third-episode verdict: No Activity (US: CBS All Access)”

There's… Johnny!
US TV

Review: There’s… Johnny! 1×1 (US: Hulu)

In the US: Available on Hulu

Anemoia isn’t a real word. It’s a made-up word, albeit one made up to serve a purpose: to describe that universal feeling of nostalgia for a time and place you didn’t live in. Someone laminate it and send it to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

I wasn’t alive in 1972. I certainly wasn’t alive in the US, watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A show that ran for 30 years, making its Nebraskan host Johnny Carson one of the most famous men in the country, it was also NBC’s most profitable TV show of the time.

Yet watching There’s… Johnny!, I felt anemoia for LA in 1972. Originally planned for NBC’s just-shuttered Seeso service but now available on Hulu, the show stars Ian Nelson as Andy, a Nebraskan boy whose family worships Johnny Carson and his show. One day, Andy writes a letter to Johnny to ask for both an autograph for his parents… and a job. Soon, he receives the autograph and a letter telling him his wish has come true, and before you know it, he’s on a bus to LA to live his dreams.

Dreams hit reality when he arrives, of course, and it turns out there is no job for him after all. But his sweet, naïve nature means that soon he’s being taken under the wing of Johnny’s assistant T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Cosby, In Living Color), as well as show co-ordinator Jane Levy (Suburgatory), and ultimately his dreams come true. But what will sex, drugs, rock & roll and 1972 all do this small town boy?

The West Wing

The show has apparently been 17 years in the making, with producer-creators David Steven Simon and Paul Reiser (yes, that one) working with the Carson estate to produce something that’s a comedy, a drama and a homage, Reiser having appeared multiple times on the show during its run so earning the estate’s trust. An almost unrecognisable Tony Danza is the only actor to be playing a real person (famous exec producer Fred de Cordova), leaving everyone else to play people who could well have existed but didn’t.

Nevertheless, those liberties and the fairy-tale qualities of the show to one side, the show feels like an authentic, behind-the-scenes look at how the Tonight Show could have been made. Taking a hint from Aaron Sorkin’s original plans for The West Wing, neither Johnny Carson nor his long-time sidekick Ed McMahon ever appear on There’s… Johnny!. Instead, they either appear blurry in the distance or through footage from the actual Tonight Show, a technique also used for the show’s guests, who in this first episode include a young George Carlin. It’s a technique that works well and also avoids the audience having to accept other actors playing two of the most famous people in TV history.

Romance

Most of the first episode is about Levy and Nelson’s burgeoning relationship, with Levy having to deal with a violent ex-boyfriend and her parents failing marriage, Nelson providing a sensitive shoulder to cry. Both do admirably well, Levy both as fierce and as funny as she was in Suburgatory and getting some decent lines from Reiser and Simon’s amusing script. There’s also the daily struggles of the writers’ room to come up with genuine gold for Carson’s famous monologues that will reward them with a wink or even a look, with moments that ring true such as a struggle to work out which is a funnier sounding petrol station: Texaco or Mobil. And, of course, we get to see Carson deliver the end result and the audience’s reaction (no, no spoilers).

The show deftly manages to walk between all these different issues, while lightly touching on the history of the period, including McGovern v Nixon and The Joy of Sex. It manages to do this without wallowing in temporal tourism, yet the beautiful recreation of the The Tonight Show studio of the time will still bring a tear to your eye, whether you were alive then or not.

There’s Johnny

The show isn’t a slam-dunk, must-watch that will have you rolling around in the aisles. But it’s a smart, loving, only slightly nostalgic slice of TV comedy about TV comedy, as well as a loving tribute to one of the US’s most hallowed TV shows, that’s certainly worth at least half an hour of your time. I’ll be back for more.