I, along with what seems like every other television critic in America, have been greatly enjoying seeing Happy Endings hit its stride this fall (especially paired with Revenge, it makes for a nice comedy-drama macaron). But I’m finding myself wishing that the show would take a bit more advantage of making Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.) and Jane (Eliza Coupe) an interracial couple to actually talk a bit about race. I’d be really curious to hear them talk about how they want to raise their kids and what it will mean for them to be biracial instead of having their visit to suburbia be about breakfast-themed Halloween costumes and the perils of that particular holiday. And the show seems inclined to give them wacky marriage strains and fixes like weirdly peppy sorority sisters and improv obsessions, rather than finding a defining approach to more naturally occurring material. The show tends to bring up race more in the interacts between Brad and his friends — in the last episode, Dave kept posing at blackness and kept getting shot down by Brad. But while the episode did a nice job of shooting down Dave’s dorkiness, the show didn’t really have Brad say anything about what Dave’s attempts at bonding meant to him, or why they didn’t work, or why they were inauthentic. It felt like an incomplete moment, particularly since these guys are supposed to be close.
I think it’s in part because my new throwback obsession is Living Single, which I’m devouring off my DVR. And one of the things I like best about it is the way it draws its jokes and dramas from real differences of opinion and conflicts about race. The scenarios aren’t patently absurd, so the presentation has to be sharp. (It also, like many other shows of another era, assumes a much broader base of general knowledge than shows today appear to.) I loved, for example, the episode where Max’s mother, the always extremely welcome CCH Pounder comes to visit. When Max’s friends say they look alike, Max’s mother, who straightens her hair, replies that it will be true once Max, who wears her hair braided, grows up–and starts paying better attention to her hair. It’s not some invented, bizarre mother-daughter cruelty. It’s instantly recognizable, and lands particularly hard because of the force of Pounder’s delivery.
It’s no mistake that one of Happy Endings‘ best episodes is the one where Max (in this case, white and gay) discovers that Brad is blowing him off to spend time with an alternate group of friends composed entirely of black men. Both Brad’s need for a racially specific environment and Max’s anxiety about not fitting in with Brad’s black friends are realistic and draw their humor and pathos from things real people are likely to feel. Unlike, say, using couples improv to boost a fraudulent tour business. It’s similar to the way the show scored a hit with a fractured take on another common experience — Penny buying her dream condo, only to believe it’s haunted by the ghost of spinsterhood yet to come. I think Happy Endings is often very good, but I’d like to see the show trust itself a bit more to riff on what’s real rather than coming up with goofy substitute conflicts.