In the “Mad Men” era, advertising was still steeped in naivete. There were people devising ads, the Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons, who were cynical enough and trying to pander to our hopes and dreams. But the art and science of branding and selling was still relatively nascent.
The path forward was clear, though, and advertising grew more sophisticated, insidious, meta, and multimedia across the decades. But now, in the “Happyish” era, advertising’s path to consumers is obstructed by DVRs that skip through ads, failing print products, and pop-up blockers. How can ads reach people, especially younger demos?
Is social media the solution? Can you sell happiness to people — something Don Draper does well — when no one quite believes in happiness anymore? The cranky ad-exec hero of a smart and tart new series called “Happyish” is not at all happy or even happyish about having to deal with such thorny questions.
As “Mad Men” prepares to leave the air, Showtime’s “Happyish” is here to offer us a far more sarcastic and pessimistic tour of the world of advertising, this time through the story of 44-year-old Thom Payne (Steve Coogan). Thom is less debonair and mysterious than Don, and his professional mission is hazier and faster-paced. Like many middle-aged workers, he’s stuck between models — between the principles and processes that his forebears developed and the more anarchic and experimental present tense, which has been transformed by the Internet and demographic targeting. Faced with new creative directors at his firm in Woodstock, N.Y., a pair of young blond men known as “The Swedes” who preach Twitter and are itching to fire older social media-phobes, Thom is in serious pain.
None of Thom’s suffering, by the way, is delivered without dry wit or overt comedy, particularly when “Happyish” veers into surrealistic sequences such as Thom’s dalliance with the cartoon of Ma Keebler, whose cookies are one of his accounts. The script is by novelist and essayist Shalom Auslander, who created the show, and it is remarkably tight, thought-provoking, literary, and jeweled with absurdist wit. You may find the humor too dark — such as when Thom’s colleague, beautifully played with conspicuous fashion glasses by Bradley Whitford, praises Al Qaeda for its branding abilities; Showtime series never shy away from nihilistic wit. But for me, the jokes are as clever and even wise as they are funny. Whitford’s theories about how corporate America is all about penis, or Thom’s existential rant about following Pepto-Bismol on Twitter — they’re right on the mark. And, often, they’re nicely punctuated by quick-cut edits.
Thom is surrounded by — and his bluster and stress are softened by — a rich ensemble on the show, which premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m.
He is content in his marriage to Lee, played with great vitality and likability by Kathryn Hahn. Lee has a surreal set piece in the second episode, when she bickers with the Amazon label on a package from her nagging mother that she doesn’t want to open. In the episode, Lee expresses hostility toward Carol Brady from “The Brady Bunch,” who led her to expect more nurturing from her own mother. Her mother, it seems, degrades everything Lee does, often by comparing it to the Holocaust. Thom and Lee have a son who is as recessive as his parents aren’t, a subplot Auslander may pursue as we see more of Thom and Lee’s home life. Also on the homefront: a couple, played by Molly Price and Andre Royo (Bubbles from “The Wire”), who sneak cigarettes and joints with Lee and Thom while their kids play together.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was originally cast as Thom, and he filmed a pilot with Auslander. When Hoffman died of a drug overdose last year, the project managed to survive, and the role went to Coogan. I imagine Hoffman’s Thom would be less high-strung and more darkly angry and interior than Coogan’s, but Coogan takes over and defines the role beautifully. His Thom is the kind of guy who refuses to go with the flow, the bigmouth who questions whether progress is progress, the guy at the office meeting who risks saying out loud exactly what the rest of us are really thinking.
Starring: Steve Coogan, Kathryn Hahn, Ellen Barkin, Carrie Preston, Bradley Whitford, Nils Lawton, Molly Price, Andre Royo
Time: Sunday, 9:30 p.m.