For the past decade, US TV has been swamped with shows billed “the new Friends.” Of course, they’ve largely failed. From the thirtysomething urbanites in short-lived sitcom Traffic Light, to the thirtysomething urbanites in short-lived sitcom Mad Love. Even the Friends stars have struggled, with Courtney Cox’s Cougar Town trundling quietly along and none of Matthew Perry’s various projects reaching past a first series. Let’s not even speak of Joey.
On face value, Happy Endings seemed no different. A sitcom about six dysfunctional thirtysomethings living in the city, its characters are carbon copy descriptions of the Friends gang. There’s Max, a loveable, yet child-like slob (the Joey-one); his best friend Brad, a serious at work but wacky at home group member (the Chandler-one); and his partner Jane, a control-freak wanting to start a family and live the perfect suburban life (the Monica-one). The show even begins with one character – who works in fashion – ditching her fiancé at the altar, à la Friends Rachel.
It debuted at the butt-end of the US TV season in 20112 and was shoved as back-to-back episodes in a death-hour for sitcoms. If there were ever a sure quickfire cancellation, these would be the ingredients. But then something odd happened. ABC – it’s US network – saw potential and moved it behind powerhouse Modern Family for a second series. It’s here Happy Endings found creative rhythm.
Whilst the first series had its moments, it was lumbered with the initial clunky premise: “when a couple splits, who gets to keep the friends?” Thankfully it abandoned that quite soon, and settled somewhere between the kookiness of New Girl and familiarity of The Big Bang Theory. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but has always had its heart in the right place by settling on a sweet, not saccharine tone.
The most convincing argument to explain why the show beats the Friends-curse is its distinctly modern outlook. Viral clips, webisodes, spoof music videos, and a GIF-ready script all contribute to a show aiming itself squarely at a web-orientated audience – it’s no surprise it plays on E4 in the UK. Moreover, the running gags, in-jokes, self-awareness, and pop culture references (episode names include: “Four Weddings and a Funeral (Minus Three Weddings and One Funeral)”, “The Butterfly Effect Effect – Spring Smackdown” and “Deuce Babylove 2: Electric Babydeuce”) have kept a loyal fan base coming back. They’ve even created a wiki for the show.
But the determining factor in its creative success is the chemistry between the standout cast. One of the best ensembles on TV outside of Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, the six leads appear to be genuine BFF’s – to the detriment of many. It also contains a breakout role from Saturday Night Live graduate Casey Wilson, and a noteworthy performance from Adam Pally.
Happy Endings ain’t in Friends territory, but the fact the show has managed to whether the comparison, indicates the series is one to catch up on.
Jordan Rowe is a freelance journalist. He has written for The Guardian, blogs at I Used To Live In Notting Hill, and is Politics Editor at Pi Media. You can follow him on Twitter, @jordanmjrowe