Adapting a comic book for a live-action visual medium seems like it should be as easy as shooting Aquamen in a barrel.
What are comics if not for storyboards for an eventual TV series or movie? But as anyone who has slogged through eight increasingly interminable seasons of The Walking Dead or watched Ozymandias flip those would-be assassins in super sexy Snyder slo-mo in Watchmen can attest to: it’s not always that simple.
Syfy’s Christmas-time violence fest Happy! is another in a long line of comic book adaptations that can’t quite realize a TV show or movie is its own unique beast.
Happy! is put in every position to succeed. It’s based on a comic by the same name from CMYK legend Grant Morrison, and brings all the style, depth, and dysfunction to the table as any other Morrison property. This time around, Morrison himself is even involved, executive producing the show and co-writing the pilot’s script alongside showrunner Bryan Taylor (of the Crank film franchise).
The plot features the kind of gonzo, stylistic nonsense that’s hardwired to thrive on television right now. Chris Meloni inhabits Nick Sax, a disgraced ex-cop turned contract killer who after a near-death experience during the holiday season comes to be haunted and harassed by a little girl’s imaginary friend, a blue unicorn named Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt).
With Happy’s help, Nick must navigate the criminal underground of New York and save the child, Hayley, who has been captured and imprisoned by a hulking, demented Santa Claus impersonator who wants all children to never grow up.
That’s…a lot. And it reads refreshingly weird and appealing on the page. As translated to screen, however, it’s tired and cliche in a way no show featuring an imaginary blue unicorn partnering up with a hitman should ever be.
Happy! is curiously dated and not in the timeless dicks-and-dames way it intends to be. The bad guys are Italian underworld greaseballs (though one family in particular is hilariously named the Scaramuccis). Cops are shockingly uninterested in missing children’s cases around Christmastime. The villains go on extended monologues about grapes and winemaking as a metaphor for violence. In an extended fantasy sequence, Nick ends up on a daytime talk show so far removed from the public consciousness that he can’t help but remark “I didn’t know you were still on the air.”
Then there’s Happy, himself. Happy is ironically the biggest factor keeping Happy! down. Oswalt was brought on to replace Bobby Moynihan after the pilot and his work through the first two episodes seems rushed and disinterested. It’s hard to fully blame him with just how little Happy adds to the proceedings himself. “Imaginary blue unicorn aids hitman in quest for justice” is a fascinating concept but the characterization of Happy and his relationship with Nick never moves beyond that: a concept.
Our blue friend is about as insightful and welcome as Ocarina of Time’s Navi. Happy exists only to keep Nick on a narrative quest that he doesn’t want to be on. And when he does stick around, he proves to be a frustratingly inconsistent personality. Is he the child-like extension of Hayley’s mind right down to parroting her elementary school teacher’s lessons? Or is he the roguish Puck who dresses up in funny outfits to motivate Nick and share self-aware, adult jokes?
At one point Happy does an R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket impression. R. Lee Ermey. In 2017. Through two episodes the purpose and characterization of Happy fluctuates so wildly that he becomes little more than an annoyance.
Thankfully, Nick mostly treats Happy as an annoyance as well and finds ways to sideline him throughout his various rampages. Chris Meloni is a very welcome addition to our culture’s fixation in elevating good actors into action stars following their 50th birthday. Meloni has always been equal parts charming and menacing and he’s an excellent fit here. The best parts of Happy! involve Meloni’s Nick as a human pin-cushion, bouncing around to violent encounter after violent encounter so we can delight in seeing how many bullets, blades, and beatings he can endure.
From the pilot’s opening moments in which Nick pukes blood into a disgusting bar urinal, Meloni is never not covered in blood whether it be his or someone else. The actor is so up for this physically and creatively that it becomes hypnotic in a way and elevates the material that Happy comes so close to completely sinking.
Weirdness is always welcome on television. Don’t let anyone else tell you different. Some of the best shows in our canon currently feature a depressed ex-actor horse trying to find his way in the world, survivors of a rapture-like event dealing with loss by getting Wu-Tang tattoos, and an alcoholic übermensch traveling the multiverse with his grandson. Shit, David Lynch took a look at the current TV landscape and thought “maybe they’re ready for more Twin Peaks.” And he was right!
Happy! should fit right in with the weirdness but can’t offer much beyond simple weirdness. Happy! would have been better served by ditching Happy altogether or at least coming up with a better way to integrate him into Nick Sax’s very bad, very violent Christmas season. Perhaps it still can. The first two episodes just don’t.
At least we now have Meloni warmed up for his next John Wick-esque opportunity.