Happy!: Season 1 (2017 - 2018)

I vaguely recall hearing some positive buzz when this came out, but because it premiered on a cable station as opposed to streaming, it wasn't really on my radar. I'm honestly a little surprised it took this long for someone to point me towards this. Setting aside the fact the tone and style are right up my alley, the first season is entirely set at Christmas, which is obviously why we're discussing it here.

I'm glad I finally got a chance to watch this - it'd rank this on my list of favorite genre TV seasons in recent history. As to what genre... well.. that's where things get complicated, because the first season of Happy! isn't easily described. It's an adaptation of a Dark Horse comic book written by Grant Morrison, who also seems to have been heavily involved in the show. I've never read the comics, but I might have to track them down, if only to confirm or falsify some theories. There's sort of a vein in comics that plays with the fact the medium occupies a middle ground between cartoons and realism. The results are best described as Looney Tunes with a hard R rating, and my guess is Happy! was one such comic. Hell, I've seen Grant Morrison touch on those ideas in mainstream superhero books like Multiversity, and - in a very different tone - the famous coyote issue from his Animal Man run.

While this isn't explicitly a superhero story (the main character in Happy! is more a spin on a pulp detective), it feels more like something out of comics than virtually any live-action adaptation I've come across. Honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with examples of animated superhero stories that bottled that magic as faithfully.

That's a good thing, at least in my book. Your mileage may vary, depending on your tolerance for weird. Because, make no mistake, Happy! is among the strangest pop-culture offerings out there. Think "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" with sex, drug use, and grotesque violence. So... I guess "Cool World" if Bakshi had been permitted to go with his original script (look it up, kids).

A more recent reference is of course Deadpool, which I assume was what SyFy executives were imagining and hoping for when they greenlit this. And there are certainly similarities due to like sources, but make no mistake - this thing is a lot darker and less family-friendly than Deadpool. Also, while Deadpool remained relatively contained in the scope of its setting, Happy! uses tropes and elements lifted from cartoons, fantasy, adventure, horror, and more. That's part of what makes it feel so much like a superhero story: the metaphysics don't seem to reduce to a single concept (at least not at this point - it's certainly possible things will be simplified in the second season, though I honestly hope not).

Let's talk premise and plot. The main characters are a washed-up former detective named Nick who's turned to a life of drugs and crime after being disillusioned with the law and humanity, and Happy!, a small blue unicorn, who's the imaginary friend of a girl who was kidnapped by a deranged man in a Santa suit. They need to team up to rescue Hailey, who (plot twist) is the daughter Nick never knew he had.

I promise you, it's even weirder than it sounds.

Nick is played by Christopher Meloni, and the CG Happy! is voiced by Patton Oswalt, both of whom are perfect in the roles. The entire cast is great, but the leads hold this together.

While Nick isn't explicitly superhuman, he's virtually unstoppable. He feels pain but has a seemingly infinite ability to push beyond it. Also, when motivated he appears capable of fighting his way through any number of enemies. The show never directly states this, but Nick seems to operate at least in part on cartoon physics. Things that would kill a normal person just sort of have comedic effects on Nick, rather than doing lasting damage. This includes stab wounds, blunt trauma, multiple car crashes, and bear traps: he's more or less invulnerable, a fact that annoys him greatly, as he's borderline suicidal at the start of the series.

Unsurprisingly, the plot is mainly concerned with Nick and Happy! bonding and learning from each other while Nick gradually comes to accept his role as a father. Also, there's a seemingly endless number of interwoven subplots involving mobsters hunting Nick, demonic possession, and a secret society run by a depraved children's show host. It's all tied together with the central mystery around Hailey's abduction, and - so long as you don't worry about the logic of how everything is so neatly connected, it makes for a satisfying standalone story and a setup for future adventures.

I'm not going to go into too much detail, both because the plot is complicated and because it's somewhat incidental. Ultimately, this is more about style than story. It wants you a little lost in the mayhem, enjoying the violent comedy. Then, probably because Morrison's involved, it tricks you into caring about the characters and feeling for them. Eventually, there's dark stuff that isn't funny, just sad, and the thin line between comedy and horror gets crossed.

Consider that a warning if you're squeamish. Looking back, this isn't an overly dark show (or at least this season wasn't), but there are a couple moments that are genuinely shocking (in particular a flashback showing the catalyst that ended Nick's career and marriage). This stuff is funny until it's serious, which in my book makes for good storytelling.

This seems like as good a place as any to talk Christmas, both in terms of how and why the holidays are used as a setting. And there's a lot to talk about. If you've been reading Mainlining Christmas for any length of time, you're likely used to seeing a number of common uses for holiday settings in genre media. Typically, a show or movie will use the holidays to create a juxtaposition between traditionally cheery elements and violence. Or maybe it'll leverage the look and feel of Christmas to build a sense of otherworldly magic. Or it'll play with traditional themes as a shorthand for nostalgia or family, or even to ground an otherwise absurd story in something recognizable.

Happy! runs the gamut. The holidays are quite literally used in every capacity above and a few that aren't. This does the Die Hard thing, the Lethal Weapon thing, it works as a Christmas Carol homage, and much more. Hell, the main character's name is Nick, and the first episode's title makes a St. Nick reference. I doubt it's an accident the season finale comes down to Saint Nick and a killer Santa Claus battling over the fate of a child.

Basically, this approaches as many Christmas movie and special tropes from as many angles as it can fit in. At times, this feels a little like it's checking off boxes, but somehow it all works and coalesces into an effective whole. You can almost understand Happy!'s Christmas elements - or any of its elements - as a sort of playful exercise in deconstructing story beats and tropes in a way that doesn't negate their effect. It's a parody mocking the pieces, but the story as a whole is still somewhat sincere. 

This is a great series, and I absolutely recommend it... provided the violence, disturbing images, and even more disturbing ideas aren't deal breakers. And on top of all that, there are a few other warnings I should offer.

This show leans heavily into humor, and the bulk of that humor is at least partly based on shock value. It's clever in its approach, but it's still playing with weird, occasionally borderline offensive jokes and characters. The evil kid's show host feels as though he's coded queer, which is an odd choice for something made in 2017. Likewise, some Asian characterizations are a little too close to stereotypes for comfort. In both cases, I suspect the attempt was to lampoon such simplistic representations, but I'm not sure that justifies the outcome.

Depending on your tolerance for such things, these - or any of a hundred other things - could cross a line for you. This isn't a show for young kids or anyone who's easily disturbed. Some of its jokes are absolutely in poor taste. It's not hard to imagine someone hating this.

But I loved every minute. The cast is fantastic, the pacing is among the best I've seen on TV, and the production values are better than some movies I've seen. How they managed to pull this off on whatever budget SyFy gave them is beyond me.

I watched the first episode of season two, and it didn't hook me the same way. I'll give it a chance, given how much I enjoyed the first season. But either way, it's set at Easter, so don't expect a review here.