Showtime’s new series, “Happyish,” offers us Thom Payne, a downward-trending 50-ish creative director in a holding company-owned advertising agency who is fighting for his relevancy, self-worth, and sense of purpose in an industry that seems anxious to dismiss him.
He’s struggling and searching for answers. I suspect that given his current circumstances – being the central figure in one of the whiniest and most self-pitying shows in television history – he’ll never find it.
To those in the ad industry who may somehow identify with Thom and his plight and wonder if they can ever find any sense of fulfillment in the pitiless world of advertising, I have some thoughts. As a 50-year-old creative who has experienced plenty of the businesses ups and downs, I feel qualified.
1. It’s not all about you. Thom Payne is self-absorbed, self-involved, and seems to feel smugly superior to every single person around him. His co-workers are to him shallow whores, frauds or hacks. Thom doesn’t seem to think anyone has anything to offer him or his work. He thinks that he alone “gets it.” He is an island.
2. Cynicism is cheap. The very worst kinds of creatives are those who don’t like anyone else’s ideas but tend to offer none of their own. They relish the opportunity to criticize others’ solutions or enthusiasm for projects, yet they fail to provide solutions of their own, probably from fear of being criticized by others like them. You can’t succeed at anything for which you have extreme disdain and contempt on a daily basis.
3. Writing is hard, that’s why you must practice. Thom seems unhappy that he has not lived up to his promise as a writer. Yet, we see little evidence that Thom is in fact a very good or very hard-working writer. His scripts for Keebler seem phoned in, his own original ideas infrequent. Thom needs to learn what many great creatives know to be true: When you’re in trouble the best thing to do is write your way out.
4. Being pretentious doesn’t mean you’re creative or smart. Thom is rarely seen without a copy of the works of Camus, Voltaire, Chekov, Bukowski or books by many other “right” authors and philosophers. There is a big difference, though, between carrying a great book around and understanding the meaning of it.
5. You bought a prison. Thom’s house in the woods is too big, too expensive and way too far away from the office.
6. Keep up with the times, not the Joneses. Thom seems to write only TV commercials and would prefer that his Keebler Elves stay animated and never leave the tree. He seems slow to grasp and learn new forms of communication and persuasion. He’s either unable or unwilling to adapt. He seems angry that he can’t simply keep cranking out new spots in a 40-year-old ad campaign and become rich, famous and respected.
7. Try to have some fun. Thom seems to forget he’s in advertising, and the hardest thing he has to lift every day is a pencil or a cocktail. He behaves as if the job he has is like that of a coal miner’s or an astrophysicist’s. The job is neither that hard nor that important. The happiest people in advertising are those who count their gifts daily and realize they outweigh their burdens.
I thought the pilot of “Happyish” showed promise but it quickly descended into a joyless, dyspeptic show. Much like its central character, Thom Payne, it is neither as smart or as funny or as clever as it thinks it is. Its portrayal of the ad world is callow and unoriginal and many of its references already feel oddly dated or clichéd. I’m not a doctor, but I’m not sure talk therapy or meds is going to cure what’s ailing “Happyish.” I’d prescribe cancellation.