SyFy’s “Happy!” is an abrasive antidote to your typical bit of holiday cheer. At times, it’s almost desperate in its desire to shock, and mistaking insanity for wit. At other times, it’s clever and twisted in ways that could become addictive for the right audience, preferably one at least partially intoxicated. Like its arguably insane protagonist, the show struggles to find its footing over the two episodes sent to press, but it’s certainly unlike anything else on television, and it’s propelled over narrative and tonal speedbumps by the talents of its two stars, one of whom just happens to be voicing an imaginary blue unicorn.
Based on Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s graphic novel, “Happy!” stars the multi-talented Christopher Meloni (more in “Wet Hot American Summer” mode than “Law & Order: SVU”) as Nick Sax, a suicidal, homicidal, maniacal ex-cop who happens to be a hitman now. In the series premiere, Sax undergoes two major events. First, he’s contracted for a hit that ends up having a fourth victim when he was only hired for three, and that extra guy passes along a piece of information that suddenly makes Sax a valuable asset for a cabal of New York villains, including one played memorably by Ritchie Coster (an ace character actor seen recently on “Billions” and “True Detective”) and an even-crazier one played by the great Patrick Fischler (“Twin Peak: The Return”). Second, he starts seeing a flying blue unicorn named Happy, voiced by the singular Patton Oswalt. Happy needs Sax’s help finding a missing girl—you see Happy was the urchin’s imaginary friend and now he’s come to the only man who can find her.
“Happy!” is a little bit of “Bad Santa,” a little bit of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” and a little bit of “Harvey,” and it pushes the boundaries of taste and décor in ways that may startle regular viewers of SyFy. Prepare yourself for geysers of blood, jokes about pee fetishes, a man dressed as Santa who kidnaps children, an imaginary unicorn on a cocaine bender, and more things I’m not even sure I can print here. The first two episodes were directed by Brian Taylor, half the team behind “Crank” and the director of the upcoming “Mom and Dad,” featuring a homicidal Nicolas Cage performance that’s going to be a part of your favorite memes in 2018. Subtlety is not exactly on the menu here, and the non-stop aggressive tone can be numbing at times.
What keeps “Happy!” from completely plummeting over the edge from abrasive to annoying is the consistently committed performances from Meloni and Oswalt. The former sells world-weary well and his comedy has always verged on the edge of insanity. Nick Sax is not that far removed from his work as Gene in “Wet Hot American Summer,” and it’s fun to see him go so dark and so fearless. Oswalt’s work is just vocal, but he’s got just the right blend of innocence and naivete for a child’s imaginary friend now hurled into a world of sex, guns and money.
After only two episodes, it’s really hard to see what “Happy!” is going to look like in January or February, so I withhold judgment on the series as a whole. It’s the kind of project that dances so interestingly on the edge of abrasiveness that one bad storytelling turn could send it off the dark side forever. And yet there’s something almost thrilling about watching Morrison, Taylor, Meloni, Oswalt, and the rest of the gang keep this crazy top spinning for two episodes. I’m curious enough to see if it keeps turning in episode three. And that’s all that really matters, I suppose.