There’s a point later on in Happy where Nick Sax, Christopher Meloni’s substance-addled, self-loathing cop-turned hitman, is using a mob boss’s family as body armour. Literally – he’s got the guy’s wife strapped to his front, he’s got the kid in a papoose kind of arrangement, they’re both alive, and the squad of mafia goombas he’s up against are fearful of firing, lest they accidentally kill one of their boss’s beloveds.
Sax has no such compunctions about firing at them. He slaughters the lot. He slaughters a lot of people over the course of Happy’s eight episode first season, dispatching all and sundry in outrageous, over the top, blood-soaked ways, all the time ruminating on his own apparent inability to be killed in turn. Sax isn’t immortal, per se; it’s just that his life is a complete toilet and he figures the universe can’t be bothered sending him to hell when he’s suffering just fine here. There’s nothing supernatural about him.
Unless you count the tiny, blue winged unicorn he’s been seeing lately, telling him he has to save a little girl from a very, very bad man.
The unicorn’s name is Happy, and he sounds an awful lot like Patton Oswalt. He’s the imaginary friend of a Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo), who’s been kidnapped by a grotesque pervert dressed in a macabre Santa suit (Joseph D. Reitman). Happy went out to find the one guy who can save her – and that’s our man Sax. Sax might be delusional. He might be hallucinating. Or he might have one last shot at redemption – if he can kill his way to Hailey. And we’re off.
Based on the comic series by Grant Morrison (The Invisibles) and Darrick Robertson (Transmetropolitan), Happy draws on a lot of influences, but reconfigures its sources into something wholly new and original. Imagine if Sin City had the good sense not to take itself too seriously. Imagine if Jimmy Stewart shot a bunch of guys in Harvey. Imagine if Law & Order SVU‘s Elliot Stabler went riiiiggghht off the rails and descended into drugs, alcohol, and murder for hire.
The whole thing is gloriously, gleefully, perverse, brutal and ugly – a trademark tone for executive producer and principal director Brian Taylor, whose works include the pretty decent Crank movies and the pretty terrible Gamer and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Everything is gritty and grimy, bathed in multicoloured neon, a nightmare New York populated by criminals, scavengers, hookers, psychopaths – and the odd innocent in need of salvation.
At the centre of it all is Meloni, who just nails it as the all-too-self-aware, all-too-self-destructive, anti-heroic Sax. It’s a bravura turn, with Meloni managing to tun every throwaway tough guy line into one for the ages. It’s an absolutely fearless performance, too; Sax might be an unstoppable killing machine once he gets up a head of steam, but he never looks cool doing it. He’s the universe’s chew toy, the butt of every joke, a loser’s loser, and he knows it.
He’s counterbalanced by Oswalt’s voice work as Happy, who is something right out of a Dsiney cartoon (well, maybe DreamWorks) and is determined to get this hulking hitman to do the right thing. The central joke is, of course, the contrast between this refugee from a Saturday morning kid’s show and the horrible urban milieu he’s forced to navigate, and the series plays with that in a number of fun and clever ways. It also toys with the nature of Happy’s “reality” a lot. The little unicorn is a self-described imaginary friend, but how imaginary is imaginary? As the season progresses the show teases out a background mythology that is more complex than first taste might suggest.
So urban fantasy fans will enjoy getting that box ticked, but they may have trouble shouldering their way through the tsunami of black, bad taste humour that is Happy’s stock in trade. The show is gleefully venal, delighting in presenting almost every single one of its characters at their worst. Happy’s supporting cast is a menagerie of sadistic killers, corrupt cops, vain mafia widows, coke-snorting card sharks, and worse – and why not? When your nominal hero is a suicidal alcoholic who kills for money, the sky – or rather the gutter- is the limit when it comes to the opposition. But don’t worry if you don’t like these people – most of them die. Horribly.
But the point is that Happy is not for everyone, and it doesn’t want to be. Having said that, those of us in its sights are in for a wild ride. It’s a perfect example of its type – deranged, hyper-violent, grotesque, too clever by half, but with a hidden heart that won’t stop beating no matter what the world throws at it. You’ll love it. Unless you don’t.