Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

'Happy Endings' and the Magic of Rapid-Fire Sitcom Dialogue

Happy Endings returns to the air this Friday. New episodes will continue to air every Friday — two at a time, back-to-back — until the end of the show’s third season. Ever since ABC announced this scheduling change in February, fans of the show have already been preparing for the worst. Airing on Fridays has not been a good thing since the heydey of ABC’s TGIF line-up. And your own network launching a Save This Show campaign is an even worse sign.

So, it appears more and more likely that this last springtime run will be the show’s curtain call. And though Happy Endings fans aren’t widespread, we aren’t ready to say goodbye to the show yet.

As others have already written, Happy Endings is a show that everyone should be watching. Though it may not be as seminal as Arrested Development or Community, as openly popular as Gilmore Girls, as critically acclaimed by high-culture media outlets as Girls, or as generally appreciated as New Girl, Happy Endings has the same thing that each of those shows all had or have—a means of character communication, which also doubles as the tone of the entire show. Just think of a trademark Gilmore Girls tête-à-tête between Lorelai and Rory or one of Michael Bluth’s morning conversations with Lindsay or GOB in the kitchen of the model home. The way in which a show’s characters communicate often conveys a show’s entire tone — and the way the characters talk to each other on Happy Endings is one of the most unique forms of communication in recent sitcom history.

Last spring, near the end of the show’s second season, New York wrote a glowing profile of Happy Endings, focusing on the dynamic rapport between cast members. Though that rapport wasn’t there at the show’s immediate outset, it has since developed at a rapid pace. So much so, that the current season of the show is almost a clinic in ensemble acting.

Take the episode, “KickBall 2: The Kickening,” which aired in January. The first full line of the episode is Jane Kerkovitch (Eliza Coupe) saying to her younger sister Alex Kerkovitch (Elisha Cuthbert), after she closes the refrigerator door and seems disappointed, “How many times must we go over this? You can’t get the refrigerator door open…before the light goes on.” The group dialogue then picks up at a rapid pace; including Alex’s “Please, guys, please. Oh, hold on I’m getting a call…it’s pretty please” followed by Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) pretending to have a full phone conversation with a woman named “pretty please.”

When I first started watching Happy Endings, the show it I kept comparing it to was Arrested Development. The main similarity being the speed of the jokes in every scene and every line of dialogue. Take for instance the episode “Merry Prankster” where the group is recounting all of the times that Max (Adam Pally) has pranked them. Each character lists a prank and then Jane mutters under her breath, “Or that time he decimated our 401k.” The timing and delivery were extremely similar to any number of Michael Bluth muttered jokes throughout Arrested Development’s three-season run. Now, Happy Endings may not match up to the depth of Arrested Development’s thematic and hidden jokes (think of the ongoing “seal” and “hand” motifs that were prevalent in Season 2), but when it comes to verbal sparring, the shows are on equal ground. In fact, you could make the argument that Happy Endings’ ability to weave in a greater range of contemporary pop culture references (“That’s cold Leblonde Jane.”) in many way trumps Arrested Development’s reliance on its own insular world.

But Happy Endings is a much warmer show overall than Arrested Development, and for all of the joke “pile-ons” the group like to participate in, the show is really about the humor and easy rapport between people that have know each other for years—which reminds me completely of Gilmore Girls. At this point, it’s a well-established fact that Gilmore Girls was one of the most widely loved and appreciated shows of the past fifteen years. It was a show that was equal parts family drama as well as off-the-wall, cultural-referencing comedy.

Gilmore Girls was a show with an impressive and witty brain as well as a large and welcoming heart. For every clever Rory and Lorelai back and forth, or weird film by Kirk, there was a moving Rory and Lorelai scene or a sensitive Jess and Luke scene.

And, Happy Endings strikes a similar balance. For instance, in the recent episode “Merry Prankster,” the show is able to pull off a scene that involves an sexual nod to Keri Strug, a reference to the 80s movie Real Genius, Alex Kerkovitch saying the line “I’m not as dumb as I am,” a car explosion, and Max acting like a cartoon villain, which is immediately followed by a touching marriage proposal between Penny and her boyfriend Pete. Just when you think the characters are about to veer too far off into their jargon of pop-culture references and quick verbal jabs, someone does something to remind you that this is a group of friends that has known each other for a long time — they know each other well, so their dialogue is going to be fast and full of insults, but there’s always a sense of love and friendship at the center.

However, even though Happy Endings has noticeable strains of both Gilmore Girls and Arrested Development, something still sets it apart; something still keeps it completely unique. A scene such as this:

This kind of roundtable banter — full of stupid jokes, singing, cultural references and each character’s complete ease with the others — is typical of the show. And it’s this kind swirling, giddy, obnoxious tone that can make a stranger (like the guy in the restaurant) yell out, “Fuck you.” Or, it can make that very tone infectious to a viewer at home; and make you miss that feeling immediately after an episode ends. It’s that quality that sets Happy Endings apart.

And, if it is cancelled, it’ll be hard to find that quality on television so quickly again.

Matt Domino loves the NBA and writes fiction in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in various places and he runs a blog called Puddles of Myself.

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  • bazilli

    Great article. And a great show that just never had the trust of its network. Shame.

  • Zachary

    I used to love Happy Endings, but I never compared it to AD, and don't like New Girl (they cancelled Traffic Light for that piece of shit?) and loathe Girls (I found no positives in that show). This season of HE has been truly horrible IMO. The only characters I still find appealing are Penny and Dave. Which is weird because I hated Penny at first, and loved Max. And now Max is easily the worst character. If you want to talk rapid fire dialogue, show a little respect for The League.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

      What the hell is Traffic Light?

    • sweetd


      Sorry, I can't take any comment coming from someone who is upset about the cancellation of Traffic Light seriously.

      PS. It's not cool to stop liking a show after the second season anymore. Did you watch the episode where Penny became a hipster yet?

      • Zachary

        Yeah I watched It. It was back when the show was funny. And back when I hated Penny. And now I like Penny. But I hate most of the other characters. And @Matt S., King of the Hill is IMO the greatest animated show ever, partially because of the lack of rapid fire dialogue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

    I love that this article assumes there's some universal love for Gilmore Girls, of all things. I guess if you wish hard enough it can happen, but as a straight male, I'm thinking there's a ceiling on that show's cultural reach.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

      Happy Endings is cool, though.

  • Matt S.

    Rapid-fire dialogue is so forced and overrated. I miss King of the Hill.

  • http://twitter.com/Bhess Bhess

    It's a good show and ABC should treat it better. Of course ABC did the same thing to Better Off Ted.

    You have to start thinking that quality comedies are not long for network TV. They are way too focused on reality shows and any spin off of CSI/NCIS.

  • ManfredYon

    This is exactly how my friends and I talk. God I hate my friends

  • http://www.facebook.com/tina.ott.39 Tina Lashua Ott

    Please END IT!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eileen-Burns/1560653482 Eileen Burns

    This is a singular show and it is very funny. Two very good reasons to watch a sit-com.