Originally published by Image Comics in 2013, the Happy! miniseries winningly told the story of a dissolute cop-turned-hitman and his bizarro partnership with a imaginary blue flying unicorn. It was morbidly funny and surprisingly sweet. The new TV show airing this week has many of the same scenes from the original comics, but they get translated in a way that loses a lot of their charm.
Happy!’s main character is Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni), a down-and-out former cop who pounds booze and drugs to block out his self-loathing and half-assed suicidality. Sax is a hitman now and, during the opening of Happy!’s pilot episode, we see him going through the motions of offing people for money. A dust-up with a quartet of junior mafiosos ends up with them dead and Nick in possession of a password that unlocks the supposedly invaluable secrets of an old-time crimelord.
Meanwhile, we learn that a creepy Santa has been abducting kids in New York City. We see him snatch a little girl named Hailey Hansen from a kids-show concert and later get a glimpse of the other children he’s stowed away in wooden packing crates in a hidden location. After getting taken, Hailey wishes for a rescue with all her might. A few scenes later, as Nick recovers from yet a near-death experience, he gets paid a visit from Hailey’s imaginary friend Happy the unicorn (voiced by Patton Oswalt). From then on, the annoyingly upbeat Happy tries to get Nick to track down and save the little girl, which the dissolute killer-for-hire has no interest in doing.
Co-created by writer Grant Morrison and artist Darick Roberston, the Happy! comic book series succeeded because it hyper-compressed a bunch of cheesy cop-fiction tropes and then swung the whole mess between overheated and ice-cold extremes. There was an unlikely redemption story underneath all the sleaze. The first two chapters of the television adaptation—executive produced by Morrison and directed by Brian Taylor (the Crank movies)—feels like they’re more interested in the sleaze.
Moreover, Happy! feels like it’s making the Watchmen Movie Mistake: There are sequences lifted almost directly from the source material, but dropped into a context where the wrong tonal notes get highlighted. The show goes for high-speed gonzo grindhouse pulp, completely paving over the comics’ drily humorous deconstruction and recombination. Morrison put the imaginary friend character Happy as an avatar of naive sincerity in the middle of a grimy, cynical urban hellscape. In the TV series pilot, Happy is just another crazy part of a crazy show.
The performances by Meloni and Oswalt are the best parts of the two episodes I’ve seen so far. Meloni infuses Sax with a physicality that veers from explosively lethal to slapstick pratfalls, making it a great pairing with Oswalt’s voicework. The action sequences are entertaining in the same guffaw-inducing vein as the Crank movies’ over-the-top antics.
I started out hating Happy! during the first half of its pilot but Meloni’s endearing commitment to literally and figuratively showing his butt won me over. The balance feels off, with some egregious padding and dumb shlock stereotypes dulling the edge of Morrison’s zany imagining, but I can’t deny I want to see more of this. I just hope Happy! starts feeling its own thing soon and less like a project stuck between two sensibilities.
Happy! airs tonight on SyFy.