Friends did us all a great disservice. For better or for worse, the precedent has been set: every TV show about friends will find itself guilty by association or paling in comparison. At least for now.
I did not love Friends, so when Happy Endings premiered—another show about pals who sit around sipping things — I passed. But out of desperation, I picked it up in spring of 2012 (when everyone got the flu and I did, too). By the time I’d regained my health, I was out of episodes.
For most network television, a happy ending was key: if not the white dress, then some attainment and promise of permanent love, the “we made it” relationship that characters and viewers alike desired. Friends ended when its central relationship began; How I Met Your Mother takes a painful amount of time to tell the same story. Look at The O.C., Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl: TV friends are created to fall in love.
Happy Endings knew better, so it gave us the ceremony first: a beautiful bride, tearful friends. Conditions were perfect. Then Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) leaves Dave (Zachary Knighton) at the altar, for a boy in rollerskates. If he had a name, I don’t remember it, because it doesn’t matter — this is not a hook for emotional investment, but rather a form of comedic fodder. A network series that ceremoniously disrupted its own title! That’s what sold me on Happy Endings: Love is not resolution. Love is funny.
Happy Endings is zany and frantic, reminding us that after one scene ends — happily or otherwise — there will always be others to follow and disrupt it. Take this week’s double episodes. In “The Marry Prankster,” Max (Adam Pally) is cruelly pranked, and swears vengeance. Everyone else lives in fear and suspicion: when Penny, the show’s previously designated forever-alone friend (played by Casey Wilson) accidentally walks into a set-up for her own proposal, she’s convinced it’s part of his revenge. It’s fine! What would be a devastating, how-could-you-do-this end to a friendship on another show only strengthens bonds on Happy Endings. (Max: “OMG are you having a breakdown? Let me get my camera.”) Anyways, the joke’s on us, for the proposal is real. It happens later, after Max slimes Penny (the real prank) and sets his own limo ablaze to get his friends back. Our friendly spinster gets a genuine proposal, the only “to ever take place within 20 feet of a car fire.” Would this happen on Friends?
The following episode, “Our Best Friend’s Wedding,” also pokes fun at traditional prenuptial preparations. No aspect of Penny’s wedding planning goes as planned. Instead, the bride-to-be forgets to invite her groom to the engagement party; he wants to elope, she wants an elaborate dream wedding; they lure him to a wedding convention not with romance, but reggae; the wedding planner eventually gets herself banned. If Friends is a script, Happy Endings is improv — in every setback is the opportunity to turn it all around. By the end, Penny gets the wedding she wants, but it seems trivial. The show will go on, either way.
When a show’s premise is Happy Endings, it’s a challenge to itself — to reinvent and pluralize the notion of a happy ending, for one. So far, these archetypal moments have been set up as scenic stops: nice to indulge in once in a while, but ultimately just en route distractions. It’s nice not to have a destination in sight: the lack of predictability is one of the greatest things about this show. These friends have gotten married and been left at the altar. Now what?