‘Happy Endings’ (Season 1): Spunky rom-com finds cult audience in crowded field

Fans of forgotten single-camera 2010s sitcoms can rejoice – you finally got your happy ending!

By Jason Hink

Actually, you’re getting all the happy endings, each and every one of them as Mill Creek Entertainment, saviors of forgotten television– both classic and modern–have released Happy Endings: The Complete Series on Blu-ray and DVD, the neglected 2011-2013 ABC sitcom that never quite found its footing but still managed to entertain its cultish audience for three seasons despite countless schedule moves, back-to-back single-night airings and ABC’s haphazard handling of the storyline by routinely airing episodes out of production order, screwing with the continuity.

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Released by Sony on standard DVD several years back (with the final season via expensive manufacture-on-demand burned discs), Mill Creek presents the definitive version of the short-lived series. This high definition Blu-ray edition looks fantastic, rivaling the image quality of similar (and more popular) programs of the era (it’s a treat to view on my new 65-inch flatscreen!). Also, Mill Creek has retained the series’ production history and placed the episodes in production order on this collection, preserving its intended continuity that got lost in the original, all-over-the-place ABC airings. So, the story makes more sense!

Created by David Caspe, whose only previous credit was scripting the Adam Sandler/Andy Samberg film That’s My Boy (written in 2010, released in 2012), Happy Endings stars Elisha Cuthbert (oh my…), Eliza Coupe, Zachary Knighton, Adam Pally, Damon Wayans Jr., and Casey Wilson as six friends navigating crazy life adventures in good ‘ol Chicago, Illinois.

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The story begins as Dave (Zachary Knighton, FlashForward, 2018’s Magnum P.I. reboot) stands at the alter, looking handsome, prepared to marry dream girl Alex (Elisha Cuthbert, 24, The Ranch) who appears ready to go. But before either can say “I do,” a douche-bag bro on roller blades screeches into the church, reminding her of the ill things she said about fiance Dave (such as being bad in bed) and Alex, looking more and more unsure, seizes the opportunity, apologizes to Dave, and runs off with the skater-bro.

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This more or less sets the tone for what’s to come, with the theme centered on the group’s attempts to remain a sextet (sixsome?) despite Dave’s and Alex’s break-up. Can they remain friends? Will the group, best friends since college in the 90s, finally break up? Will Dave and Alex eventually get back together? Most importantly, will viewers care??

RELATED | Read more 2010s TV reviews

The ratings for the series premiere were solid, pulling in 7.3 million viewers, then dropped to 5.7 million in the second episode, which aired back-to-back on the same night with the pilot. Unfortunately, those would be the highest rated episodes of the season for Happy Endings. Much of the blame for the fall can (and should) rest with ABC. Not only did the network air much of the series out of order, they plonked it down on Wednesday nights with back-to-back episodes beginning at 10 p.m., hardly a traditional time slot for sitcoms (you could argue that its lack of a laugh-track and rom-com underpinnings made it a tad more, uhh, okay for a 10-o’clock show, but it’s clearly a 9-o’clock-hour-designed comedy (too absurd to be a true dramedy) which overstayed its late time slot by blowing through those weekly back-to-back episodes.

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Perhaps part of the problem was its strong comedic lead-ins; ABC began the night with The Middle and newcomer Better Than You in the 8 p.m. hour and at 9 p.m. the one-two punch of Modern Family (No. 25 in the Nielsen ratings that year) and Cougar Town. Not bad lead-ins at all, but by 10 p.m. audiences tend to tire after four straight sitcoms (for every Friends and Seinfeld you should follow it with an ER, right?). So naturally, folks wanting a dramatic change of pace to end the night simply flipped over to the competition…and it was tough competition – Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior on CBS (29th in the Neilsens for the year) and venerable workhorse Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on NBC, both well known brands from long-running, popular franchises. Happy Endings never stood a chance.

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But there’s more to it than Dave’s and Alex’s will-they-or-won’t-they-get-back-together romance. You had married couple Brad (Damon Wayons Jr.) and Jane (Eliza Coupe), a neurotic pairing with the sometimes-stuffy, button-downed Brad always trying to keep up with half-crazy attention-whore Jane, who’s also Alex’s sister. Then there’s Max (Adam Pally), the flamboyant, gay, asshole-with-a-giant-heart bestie to Penny (Casey Wilson), the goofy lovesick single destined to date the worst of the worst while always hoping for the best. The Friends comparison some critics and viewers observed is apt; it’s as good a way as any to quickly describe the show to a friend.

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A spring entry during the 2010-2011 season premiering on April 13, 2011, Happy Endings is a curious blend of so-called “relationship comedies” and old-school 90s-era sitcoms. In fact, critics in 2011 compared the show, unfavorably at first, to other similar entries that year in the “relationship sitcom” fold, all of which failed and didn’t make it to a second season (those shows included Friends with Benefits, Mad Love, Perfect Couples and Traffic Light). Happy Endings didn’t light the barn on fire, but despite a gradual fall in viewers from episode to episode, there was a enough perceived charm (the cast is likable here) for ABC to not completely shut the door.

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And those 90s sitcom inspirations? After the initial drama of Dave’s and Alex’s wedding disaster is dispensed with in the opening episode, subsequent outings do take a Friends-like structure, with the six “friends” hanging out, going to coffee, hitting up bars and generally failing at life and relationships, all while juggling their relationships with each other. Like Ross and Monica, two of the characters (Jane and Alex) are siblings, and where Friends began with Rachel having chickened out of her wedding (while still in her wedding dress), so too begins Happy Endings, with Alex chickening out at her wedding (similarities that creator Caspe said he took a lot of heat for but insisted he hadn’t seen the Friends pilot in over a decade, and didn’t remember it started like that).

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There’s even a hint of Seinfeld in the mix, with many episodes taking on that “show about nothing” quality, complete with throwaway jokes and absurd side characters in contrast to the main cast, who, despite their neurotic and sometimes silly tendencies, are largely normal folks (like a group of Jerrys who get bombarded weekly with crazy guest Kramers).

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Caspe would go on to create another failed comedy in the 2014-2015 season (NBC’s Marry Me, which lasted 18 episodes) before moving away from broadcast TV to pay cable net Showtime, where Black Monday was to premiere in 2018. It was reported that Marry Me exists in the same universe as Happy Endings; both shows are set in Chicago and Derrick, a recurring character played by Stephen Guarino in two first-season episodes of Happy Endings, appears on both shows. All three of Caspe’s shows were produced through Sony Pictures Television.

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But before he’d do any of that, he got a reprieve; Happy Endings, thought to be headed to the scrap heap like all those other single-season rom-coms from 2010-2011, scored a renewal by ABC, picking up a full 21-episode second season and a better timeslot for 2011-2012 – Wednesday’s at 9:30 p.m. as the lead-in to freshman drama Revenge. Happy Endings would enjoy its highest ratings in that second season and earned critical acclaim despite continual network tinkering with its scheduling that brought a precipitous ratings drop in its third season, leading to cancellation.

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All the more reason to rejoice, revisit and relive these episodes in high-definition Blu-ray and enjoy a TV show that feels like it was made in a simpler time, despite how recent it was.

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Let’s take a look at each of Happy Ending‘s 13 season one episodes from the 2010-2011 season. As stared prior, the air dates jump around because ABC aired episodes out of order (to the ire of fans), but Mill Creek has released them in production order, which is how I screened them.

Pilot (April 13, 2011)
With low expectations, I found myself pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Happy Ending‘s pilot episode. Alex leaves Dave at the altar on their wedding day, setting in motion awkwardness that would afflict the entire group of friends (including Brad, Jane, Penny & Max) as they attempt to continue hangin’ out.

The awkwardness & issues concerning whose side each friend is on (Team Alex or Team Dave?) comes to a head at Penny’s birthday party the following week where she hilariously tries to pass herself off as younger than she is (among other things) to impress a guy she’s dating.

Bo Fight (May 18, 2011)
Alex goes on a “girls night out” rampage, forcing Penny to join her on ridiculous outings, including a cooking class with an overbearing, douche-y chef. Meanwhile, Jane & Brad’s night-out dinner ends in disaster when they can’t agree on their future. Stealing the show is Max & Dave, who track down the man that whisked Alex away from Dave at the wedding in the pilot episode. Hilarity ensues when they approach the matter “how Steven Seagal would’ve approached it,” which means violence & martial arts.

This was the 10th episode that aired. It was intended to be the second episode of the series, but ABC originally aired the series out of order. Blessings to Mill Creek Entertainment, who have rearranged the episodes in their intended order on their Blu-ray release, which is how I am watching them.

Barefoot Pedaler (May 18, 2011)
Barefoot Pedaler, a washed-up 90s band the gang loved back in college, is playing a show in town…but is it possible the crew can attend together, with BOTH Alex & Dave in tow? Legit laughs in this one as Brad, Jane, Penny & Max scheme to do the group thang with their friends separately (especially funny is the gang having breakfast with Dave, then making excuses to end it only to have breakfast again with Alex at the same restaurant). Don’t we all have certain friends we can’t invite to the same functions?

Meanwhile, Penny tries to hook up with a member of Barefoot Pedaler, an “electric violinist” she had sex with back in the day.

This episode aired back-to-back with Bo Fight. It was the 11th episode to air, but the third produced.

Dave of the Dead (May 4, 2011)
Who are the real zombies? Turns out it’s the hipsters. When Max & Jane face off in a series of challenges to determine who would survive a zombie apocalypse, they cleverly play on each other’s weaknesses to score points. Meanwhile, Dave contemplates quitting his job to open an expensive restaurant, something the rest of the crew doesn’t think is a good idea. Can ex-fiance Alex steer him in the right direction?

Elsewhere, Penny meets a poorly-dressed dude at the laundromat & they begin dating, only to find out that he’s (gasp!) a hipster. This episode has fun overemphasizing hipster stereotypes to hilarious effect as the hipster dude’s friends spit out deadpan lines like “I don’t even care…” and “I’m over it…

The Quicksand Girlfriend (April 13, 2011)
Dave is smothered by a crazy woman he meets at the bar, yet winds up in a relationship with her…one neither wants to be in. Meanwhile, control freak Jane goes overboard trying to help Alex find a new roommate, & Penny looks for a more flamboyant, stereotypical gay best friend to hang out with (because Max is too boring for a gay guy, apparently).

This episode actually aired the same night the Pilot, back-to-back. It’s no wonder fans were irked because the as-aired order makes much less sense. Also, these episodes weren’t the best two episodes, comedy-wise, to open with, perhaps scaring off many first-time viewers. They notched 7.3M & 5.7M viewers that night, respectively; no other episode this season would match them.

Why Can’t You Read Me (August 24, 2011)
Hilarious outing with some good, edgy, politically incorrect humor that probably wouldn’t fly at today’s scared, over-sensitive networks (how can 2011 sometimes feel like 1991?). Alex & Jane’s sibling rivalry (they’re sisters!? How did I not realize this until now?) goes through the roof when Jane wants to be the center of attention at a charity reading event she’s hosting, but Alex has trouble letting it fly without her taking center stage.

Meanwhile, Dave dates a hottie cocktail waitress who’s also a “Division III” lacrosse coach (played by Bre Blair) who has a kinky streak that even he can’t hang with. And Max & Brad, worried that Penny’s new office assistant (Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin) is taking advantage of her, take matters into their own hands.

Jane’s racy jokes at the literacy event (“What’s up with these library fines? I wanna see rape fines! Right, ladies??”), her tone-deaf delivery and husband Dave’s fake laughing at her bad humor makes for comedy gold in this outing, which is a shame, because it was the least-watched episode of the season (2.98M viewers). In fact, it aired as the season finale, technically–an unaired episode ABC burned off at the end of summer a full three months after Happy Endings‘ regular run had ended.

Of Mice & Jazz-Kwon-Do (May 4, 2011)
When Alex asks Dave to help catch a mouse at her apartment, he obliges, then takes advantage of the situation…and she doesn’t seem to mind. Brad tries to hook Max up with a coworker, leading Max to accuse Brad of “gaysism” (the “assumption that gay people like other gay people because…they’re gay”). Meanwhile, Penny & Jane are a hoot as they become overly-competitive at self-defense class, leading to some hilariously choreographed fight scenes, egged on inappropriately by their over-aggressive self-defense instructor.

Happy Endings has been a little hit or miss thus far, but it’s growing on me – definitely more hit than miss now. This episode caused a minor stir having featured a joke where Dave refers to the mouse as his Bin Laden, “the one that got away.” Bin Laden had been found & killed between the episode’s production & its airing around 6 months later, so ABC decided to mute that last line.

Mein Coming Out (April 20, 2011)
“Two sluts and a Nazi?” asks Max’s father (Alan Rachins) during his visit with Max’s mom (Caroline Aaron) as Jane (& then Alex) fills in as his fake girlfriend in order to avoid coming out to his parents. Jane, always overbearing & overconfident, bombs the charade despite her best intentions.

Meanwhile, Penny hooks up with a dude (Greg Comer) on a blind date & he’s perfect, until she discovers his last name is Hitler. Nazi jokes ensue; laughter abounds.

Your Couples Friends & Neighbors (April 20, 2011)
Jane convinces Brad to try and befriend a more sophisticated married couple (Brett Gelman & Danielle Schneider) who wind up being extremely forward (if ya know what I mean…). Meanwhile, Max & Dave investigate how items have been disappearing from their apartment (look up!); and Penny encourages Alex to start dating again after finding out that Dave has been doing the same, but she better pay attention to who she’s hooking up with!

Hey, who’s that directing this episode? The one & only “Kevin Arnold” himself, Fred Savage.

You’ve Got Male (May 11, 2011)
Maybe I was in a good mood, but this episode was hilarious, and hit all the right notes!

Alex fires up nearby small business owners to fight a chain coffee store moving into the neighborhood & Max lends a hand, showing how to properly protest–but he doesn’t realize his new boyfriend is the store’s owner (Max Greenfield).

Meanwhile, Dave’s favorite high school teacher & idol, Alan (a hilarious Rob Huebel), is back in town, but he has the hots for Penny, who learns Alan isn’t as cool as Dave thinks. Dave learns the hard way when Alan fails to follow through helping Dave in a food truck competition. Elsewhere, Brad & Jane are at their competitive best after making a bet to see who can get a job by using either their charm or being properly, traditionally prepared.

The comedy is over-the-top absurd, making for a standout episode with plenty of laughs.

The Girl with the David Tattoo (May 11, 2011)
This last third of first-season episodes has the show finding its groove, with more hits than misses in the funny-bone department. It’s interesting to note how the writers are now breaking the group into different pairs, with the natural couples mixed up to explore different scenarios.

Dave & Alex are that couple – the ones with matching tattoos (each sporting the other’s name); now they regret it & it’s time to get them removed. But not before Dave’s hilarious attempts at explaining his away while in bed with other women (“Alex……..Trebek?“)

Meanwhile, Jane continues hanging with Max, who’s a bit of an asshole as he slags off potentially good men he could be dating. And Brad & Penny hilariously try to help a poor schmuck they inadvertently helped get fired from his waiter job because he refuses to write anything down (who hasn’t had that waiter/waitress before?).

Like Father, Like Gun (April 27, 2011)
“Right on the sex nose!” A few funny moments in this outing that sees Brad’s father visit after a health scare (played, naturally, by Damon Wayans)…but will he or won’t he say “I love you” to son Brad? Good to see Damon Sr. show up on 2011 TV.

More laughs are found when Penny meets a handsome non-English-speaking Italian, but she can only speak his language when she’s drunk. Alex plays third wheel, speaking in Italian-ish gibberish (she eats ribs when she’s drunk). Probably couldn’t play this scene in 2018.

Meanwhile, Dave & Max let out their inner child with new Nerf dart guns, setting up an elaborate plot to shoot the “ladies man” (Paul Scheer) in the apartment building next door who’s having too much sex. Fun to see them perched with their Nerf gun like a sniper attempting a hit. Probably couldn’t play this scene in 2018.

The Shershow Redemption (May 25, 2011)
The proper season finale (going by production order), with the gang heading off to the wedding of their dorky old friend, Shershow (T.J. Miller), which stirs up uneasy feelings for the group: Shershow was Penny’s “safety,” the man she would marry if they couldn’t find anyone else; the wedding is scheduled on Brad & Jane’s anniversary, which leads to their finding out they weren’t legally married; and Alex inadvertently reveals to Dave that she made a mistake when she stormed out of their wedding, setting up potential new storylines for future seasons.

Funny moments include Alex & Dave agreeing to be each other’s “wingman” to ill effect; Penny pretending to be engaged to flamboyant, gay Derrick to save face; and Shershow’s fiancé (June Diane Raphael) labeling Alex a “wedding jinx.”

A good outing to end the season, setting up more comedic anxieties for the crew in season two.

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