Syfy’s Happy! might seem like the least likely comics-to-TV adaptation ever attempted. The four-issue series by writer Grant Morrison and artist Darrick Robertson seemed to thumb its nose at the very idea of being adapted with its mix of gross-out humor, intensely dark subject matter, and Robertson’s grotesque imagery. Nonetheless, it happened and, in a shocking twist, earned a second-season commitment from the cable channel this week.
Starring Christopher Meloni as heart-attack prone hitman Nick Sax and Patton Oswalt as the imaginary friend of Nick’s daughter Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo), the series careens, hobbles, and blasts through the streets of a New York corrupted by the bleakest version of every 21st-century obsession you can think of. Like the comic book it is based on, the show can be darkly funny yet still find a way to be emotionally engaging.
No wonder the show has been renewed.
But with the first season airing its finale on Wednesday, we thought it might be time to offer a few of the reasons why Happy!’s renewal was well deserved.
The stars of Happy! could not be better fits for their characters, even if they take slightly different paths than their comic book counterparts. As thoroughly broken human garbage heap Nick Sax, Christopher Meloni shatters the lingering image of his Detective Elliot Stabler from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit by playing a disgraced cop whose darkened soul breaks up his marriage — which sort of feels like an in-joke about Stabler’s home life — and denies him knowledge of his daughter’s existence until she’s kidnapped 10 years later. For most of the early episodes, Nick is a tough character to like. It is pretty much only Meloni’s natural charm and comedic timing — and the visceral thrill in seeing him kill some truly repugnant people — that keeps you invested. Then, almost imperceptibly, Nick finds himself caring for someone and fighting to save them; a real magic trick considering how the show tries to lampoon hero-turns and other TV conventions.
Similarly, Oswalt voices Happy with a lot of innocence and an appropriate saccharine sweetness. But he also goes on a journey that makes Happy a very complicated Imaginary Friend. As in the comic book, the character ends up with a lot of substance, particularly after he loses heart and nearly gets killed after an Imaginary Friends support group, a wrinkle only alluded to in the comic. The real magic here is keeping Happy a peppy and naïve character even while he comes to understand the broken world Nick lives in, which is something Oswalt and the show pulls off in spades.
In the comic book, Maireadh McCarthy is a presence, but her situation is peripheral to Nick’s mission to save Hailey. But in an eight-episode series, there was room to flesh her out into Meredith McCarthy (Lili Mirojnick), a person who cares deeply about people — even if it gets her into trouble — and tries to do right even as she gets lost in the corruption. That is Maireadh’s arc in the comic as well, but it works much better on television with the added layers and Mirojnick’s performance, which can swing from a broad impression of Meloni to deviousness to genuine remorse. The character is also served by allusions to her father’s complicity in the widespread corruption and the care she attempted to give to her ailing mother. Elements which flesh her out well beyond the character who enigmatically gets the final line in the comic book.
Similarly, Nick’s ex-wife Amanda gets a boost by becoming an actual character. Referenced only in flashbacks when Nick has to confront his past, she never really exists in the comic book. That lack of character allowed Medina Senghore complete freedom to create someone McCarthy refers to as “a pit pull.” When we first meet her, she demands to be heard at the police station. She eventually forces McCarthy — who helped Nick wreck his marriage by sleeping with him — into doing the right thing and investigating Hailey’s disappearance. The two magically make a great team, making their shared bad history all the more a shame. And because the show is not afraid to make fun of its characters, Amanda’s strength leads to an amazing punchline in episode 7.
Reading the book, one would never get the sense that the energy and genre-smashing executive producer Brian Taylor brought to his Crank movies would work so well in the grimy world Robertson drew in the comics, but it is a really good fit. Much of the first three episodes sees Nick on a Chev Chelios–style run from a mob hospital to the rooftops near Chinatown. The energy breaths a whole new life into Happy!
But just as Crank 2’s Kaiju battle was an unexpected stylistic change, Happy! plays with TV genres as Nick’s attempt to process the existence of a daughter leads him to The Jerry Springer Show. The production went as far to use Springer’s set and crew while the man himself was gracious enough to let a punchdrunk Nick ask “You’re still on the air?”
The introduction of Isabella Scaramucci (Debi Mazar) occurs during the opening titles of the reality series she is filming, leading to an ongoing switch between Happy!’s cinematic look and the lower-quality camera work of a Real Housewives–style show. That the switch in style serves the overall story is truly impressive. Especially when you consider these are completely new ideas for the television adaptation of a fairly slim comic book series.
As mentioned before, the Happy! comic book series ran for four issues. Since this was Morrison and Robertson’s design, its world is fairly limited and made all the more claustrophobic by Robertson’s art. But the television series opens thing up with the addition of things like children’s entertainer Sonny Shine (Christopher Fitzgerald) and his Wishies, a weird insect-obsessed sex cult whose leader is really pulling the strings, and the group of kids abducted with Hailey, who slowly become characters in their own right.
But perhaps the best addition is Mazar’s Isabella, who not only contends with a desire for a social media following, but also believes in the old ways thanks to her hex-producing grandmother. Between mixing menstrual blood into the pasta sauce and getting word from her producer that the deaths of her children are “kind of a buzzkill,” Isabella exemplifies the special madness the show tapped into by playing with the medium itself, a trick Morrison employed in comic books like The Invisibles and The Multiversity.
The show also greatly expanded other characters from the comic. Mr. Blue, a fairly one-note mobster in the comic, gets an upgrade as Francisco Scaramucci (Ritchie Coster), a man desperate for a “traditional” suburban life despite an underlying streak of cruelty and his seriously amoral son. Mikey (Gus Halper), a character who dies almost instantly in the comic, literally comes back to life as an increasingly zombie-like creature in search of Mr. Blue. Very Bad Santa (Joseph D. Reitman), the Santa-obsessed child abductor, also gets more backstory and an unsettling tie to Nick which will no doubt come into play during tonight’s season 1 finale.
But there is one other character from the book which the show remixed into something remarkable.
From his first moment on screen, Patrick Fischler owns the character. It probably helps that in the comics, Smoothie looks very much like him. But in expanding the character beyond his hate-on for Nick and his love of cutting people up, the show created one of the most depraved and compelling characters on television this year. His weird affection for McCarthy’s mother (Laura Poe) — illustrated by the makeover he gives her while explaining how he uses day spa techniques to torture his victims — is both warm and unsettling. He is also unphased when both Nick and McCarthy take verbal and physical shots at him. If you had missed his first scenes, in which he dismembers a victim and attempts to slice Nick’s penis off like salami, you might think he was just a hospice worker with a shallow affect that McCarthy likes to abuse. But then more and more layers start to emerge.
In the comic, he is only a master interrogator, but the series uses him as a multifaceted henchperson with experience in demolition, clean-up, child management, and vivisection. Not that he actually gets to vivisect the poor Christian missionary who comes to the McCarthy home. Come to think of it, is that guy still in the shower?
Through it all, Fischel gives the character an unnerving confidence which becomes all the more threatening when Hailey manages to upset him. And he flips it into high comedy when Nick finally learns why he’s called Smoothie.
Happy! illustrates just how boundless comic books can be and its adaptation proves how adventurous television can be when it picks up the anarchic spirit of one of the medium’s best storytellers.
Happy!’s season 1 finale airs Wednesday night at 10/9C on Syfy.