'Happy Endings': A good word for a dying TV show

Consider this TV hospice.

Or perhaps a premature eulogy.

Whatever it is, until the other day I worried: Could I find the words to honor “Happy Endings”?

Do I call it a “good show”? A “kind show”?

Do I write a bittersweet mash note to a low-rated ABC sitcom almost certainly about to die? Offer it broadly and generously as the simple story of six Chicago friends insulated by their friendship? Do I suggest that it was unfairly treated and, in another time, under the right conditions, things might have turned out differently?

It would be a lie.

If you haven't seen “Happy Endings” (and most of you never have), any description that flat and lifeless would suggest a warmed-over “Friends” or neutered “Seinfeld,” or any number of TV friend-coms. It would do a disservice to the feverish John Waters-esque, coked-up prattle of the characters on “Happy Endings,” which was created by North Shore native David Caspe and partly written by the Brothers Libman, Matthew and Daniel, two of Caspe's old friends from Glencoe (Caspe and Matthew Libman attended New Trier High School together).

It would also fail to convey this: As much as we like to think TV is as verbal a medium as film is visual, shows that honor language — the ones that rant in wild, abstract, delirious tongues — usually translate into the smallest audiences. A show like “Happy Endings,” more about words than friends, was born endangered.

But “Seinfeld” … you say?

The Halley's comet of language-obsessed sitcoms, I say. The one exception that unfairly suggests there's room for a second. “Happy Endings” has been on ABC for three seasons, and, as with “30 Rock” (years of low ratings), “Community” (years of low ratings, continually in danger of cancellation) and “Arrested Development” (years of low ratings, then cancellation — though it is being revived next month on Netflix, where ratings appear to hold less sway), its delight in language and the sound of careening syllables has meant …

Low ratings.

So, though you may not watch “Happy Endings,” here's why you should care about its fate: Any show with language as go-for-broke baroque as this captures The Way We Sound Now, even if we haven't realized it yet.

Just ask Danny Pudi, who plays Abed on “Community” (and grew up in Brighton Park and Jefferson Park). “The truth is, we do speak in code. We tuck inside jokes inside inside jokes,” he told me. “On (‘Community') we say things that have no meaning outside of ‘Community.' We had a character named Paradox with one line: ‘I agree to disagree.' A show like that, it will always be on the bubble. It's too personal, too real about the way people sound when they're talking to each other. So, sure, there is solidarity with ‘Happy Endings.' We both know at any point we could be gone. You cannot put us on in the background and still feel included.”

Indeed, the website TV by the Numbers, which maintains a frank assessment of the fortunes of TV series, recently described the chance of a fourth-season renewal of “Happy Endings” as “overwhelmingly bleak.”

Prognosis? Dead by May.

I spoke recently with Caspe and the Libmans about the unpromising future of their abrasively verbal oddity. But the day before, I spotted this: A commercial for “Happy Endings” — which started on Wednesdays after “Modern Family,” then moved to Tuesdays, then Sundays — that screamed that the show was about to jump to Fridays. Which meant certain death. Though that in itself wasn't remarkable — troubled shows be troubled.

Far more remarkable: ABC was also imploring viewers, in big red letters slapped over a montage of clips, to “Save ‘Happy Endings.'” Meaning, the usual viewer-led campaign urging a network to give a smart but stumbling show a chance was being co-opted by the network that, barring a Nielsen miracle, would cancel the show.

Cynical, cynical, cynical.

And yet, that kind of verbal irony and corporate doublespeak — tinged with threat, and maybe a little confusion (am I the only one who thought for a second that ABC was suggesting we “save” the show to our DVRs?) — is a perfect example of the appeal of a “Happy Endings.” The series is so linguistically slippery it once offered: “If Mary Tyler Moore married and divorced Steven Tyler, then married and divorced Michael Moore, and got into a three-way lesbian marriage with Demi Moore and Mandy Moore, would she go by Mary Tyler Moore Tyler Moore Moore Moore?” A series so wryly self-conscious that a character once said, “Oh, it's on like Donkey Tron.” A series so attuned to the lifeless writing within the Hollywood gene pool that Elisha Cuthbert's character once said (just for the playfulness of the sound): “The last thing we want is for things to get complicated, like in ‘It's Complicated,' so we're just going to go with it, like in ‘Just Go With It,' and just be friends with benefits, like in ‘No Strings Attached.'”

In fact, even when I asked Caspe on the phone about those “Save ‘Happy Endings'” ads — granted, I was asking a man with his head on the chopping block to discuss his executioner — he seemed to wiggle, linguistically.

“My first instinct, of course, was, ‘If you want to help save this show, couldn't you save the show yourself?' But I think there's a meta joke there. That's what this ad is about, somewhat,” he said. “(ABC has) been supporting the show from the beginning, they want to make it work, but there are a lot of masters to serve and it's hard to make a show work. I believe they are doing their best. But we're a critical success, not a ratings success.”

If ABC were supporting you, why move you to Friday, I asked.

“Running a network is above my pay grade,” he said. “They loved the show so much they put it on after ‘Modern Family,' and we did well, but money has to go to new shows. The slot after ‘Modern Family,' it has to be used for promoting those new shows. They can love the show and still have a hard time slotting it.”

David, I said, I can't see you but is someone holding a gun to your head? Tap the phone once for yes.

Caspe did not tap the phone.

Jonathan Groff, the executive producer, who was on the other line, jumped in: “I think (ABC is) frustrated it is not a bigger hit. I think there is hindsight, in that they could have scheduled it better. … But I think the ad campaign is a great idea. It is a bit of a head-scratcher, but I also think that they know what they are doing.”

It's painful to hear people so attuned to language watching what they say.

On the other hand, who wouldn't in a hostage situation?

Tellingly, Matthew Libman said that at New Trier, he and David were the smoothers, the connectors, “the group who bridged the groups, the people in band, the jocks, we would be invited to everyone's parties.”

Which made me think of a moment on the second season when Cuthbert and Damon Wayans Jr. find themselves with nothing to say. Cuthbert, sincerely curious, asks Wayans, apropos of nothing: “Are rap and hip-hop the same thing?” And Wayans, wanting to keep things flowing, replies quickly, earnestly, “Yes!”

“That was my joke,” Libman said.

It's also the kind of thing that suggests familiarity, friends who have known each other a while. Groff told me that a lot of the way the show sounds — though it's written by a staff of 13 20- and 30-somethings, most of whom didn't know each other before the show — “was based around the way (Caspe) and his friends speak to each other. They have a shorthand, like a tribe, which is how people who have known each other a very long time can act. They aren't always nice to each other, but they finish each other's sentences.”

Indeed, Daniel Libman said: “We like the sound of words. Men's names on women, women's names on men. Using one word as often as possible. And we never talk about how we sound, which is maybe why it happens.”

Matthew Libman said: “When we meet new people, they tend to be like, ‘What are they talking about?'”

Caspe said: “Someone's nickname, or some inside joke, will be like 20 years old and built up and up and gone through so many iterations within the group that it can become barely recognizable to the outside world. … I also went to college with a guy who would make up a lot of words, and I loved it. He would always say ‘inperatootoo.' Which basically meant ‘in perpetuity,' which is so weird, yet it kind of sounds so right.”

I asked them for their favorite words on the show.

Groff's was “chicksand,” the act of being sucked into a crazy relationship.

Caspe's was “by-abe,” which means “babe.”

Matthew's was “legit,” which was a letdown.

My favorite line, I said, was “Save the drama for Wilmer Valderrama.” Which means nothing.

“No,” Matthew acknowledged, “but the rhythm is the key there.”

Groff said some of this playfulness might come from social media, from “being part of an online generation that is always condensing things, coming up with the 140-character way of explaining the world.”

And Caspe said: “The more you get the rhythm (of our dialogue), the more you feel on the inside. That being said, though, our goal here is never to be exclusionary. To keep this show going, we need to be inclusatory.”

“Which — ” I started.

“Is not a word,” he finished.

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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