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'HAPPYish': Bitter,angry,overwrought, with a faint spark of promise

Steve Coogan as Thom and Sawyer Shipman as

Steve Coogan as Thom and Sawyer Shipman as Julius in "HAPPYish." Credit: SHOWTIME

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Thom Payne (Steve Coogan), married to Lee (Kathryn Hahn), is facing his midlife crisis on his 44th birthday. A pair of creative guys from Sweden have invaded his flagging ad agency, and Thom's own boss, Jonathan Cooke (Bradley Whitford), tells him -- in so many words -- to get with the program. Or . . . else.

A couple of notable asides: "HAPPYish" -- from author Shalom Auslander -- incorporates animation from iconic advertising campaigns, including Keebler's and GEICO.

Also: Philip Seymour Hoffman was to have played Payne, before his death last year, at age 46.

MY SAY As an established author, Auslander has what's called a "voice," or trademark style unmistakably his own, now transposed to the screen for the first time. He doesn't just turn a phrase, but sharpens one, then dips the point in acid. The vulgarity here (at least in the pilot) will blow your hair back, or right off. His worldview is one part Christopher Hitchens, one part Samuel Beckett, one part Louis CK: The universe is not indifferent to humankind, as it turns out, but actively conspiring to make us look as foolish as possible, and largely succeeding.

If all that makes his funny-ish new show sound bitter, angry, provocative and occassionally compelling, then (well) that's because it is. But "HAPPYish" can also be wildly uneven and a little too smug in its certitude. It also actively explores terrain -- the flip-side of the American dream -- that is officially over-explored on TV, particularly on Showtime ("Weeds," "Shameless").

But actually funny? Yes, there's some of that here, too. Just not enough. As a gin-soaked, ethically-drained, gnomic-spouting void in a suit, Whitford gets most of the best lines, squanders none. A brilliant too-brief scene in the third episode, starring Rob Reiner as a soulless, name-dropping ad hack, nearly hijacks the whole series.

But the animation segues -- Payne's alter-egos that torment him or vice versa -- are just a series of elaborate joke setups without punchlines. Other than one priceless line, the extended bits with the GEICO lizard are about as torturous as they sound.

Meanwhile, watching one great actor, Coogan, play the role that was to have gone to another quickly turns into a mental exercise bordering on distraction: How would Hoffman have made this different, or possibly better? Could he have improved the uneven material?

And -- about that material -- why was Hoffman ever even attracted to it in the first place?  We'll never know.


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