Happy Ending with Nando Vila, Fusion’s new political sketch comedy series, was announced in an email two weeks ago, debuted one week ago and continues tonight at 10 p.m., having received, as best I can tell, zero attention. If that seems like a sign Fusion knows it’s got a dud on its hands, well, it probably is. Though I initially reacted to the announcement with cynicism—another political sketch comedy show?!—this quickly turned around when I learned Happy Ending would approach its subject matter from a leftist point of view, addressing evils that contemporary political satire mostly overlooks: capitalism, imperialism, all that good stuff entertainment companies tiptoe around because they’re complicit in the whole cannoli. I was excited to see Happy Ending’s first episodes would feature guests like Matt Bruenig, founder of the crowd-funded think tank People’s Policy Project, and Adam Johnson, a media critic with an eagle eye for the subtle (and the blatant) imperialist rhetoric in corporate media. It all seemed very promising! Alas it’s a dud, and not even the fun kind of dud, I hate to say
The main thing is that Happy Ending’s just not very funny. The pilot opens with Vila bursting from an underground bunker into the desolate post-apocalyptic landscape of California in 2027. “Ah,” he exhales, “the first rays of sunshine since New Year’s Eve, 1999.” A passing scavenger, scarred and wizened, informs him that the world didn’t end on Y2K but in the nuclear wars of 2019. Vila blanches: “Aw, the nerds fixed the code and then something other than Y2K brought about the apocalypse?” Soon afterward he hops in a Delorean and travels back in time to save the world. This just about encapsulates Happy Ending’s sense of humor: oddly constructed, clumsily delivered and a bit too dependent on confusing cultural reference points. (Another episode has an extended Top Gun parody. Isn’t Fusion targeted at Millennials?) Vila introduces each of the episodes made available to critics with what appears to be a paragraph of marketing copy: “We’re here to wrap our heads around a world that’s spinning too fast, to take a step back and figure out what’s going on behind the headlines and where we go from here. See, the world seems to have gotten really absurd, really quickly, so we try to explain the absurdity in silly and absurd ways.” In the pilot he adds: “Because we’d all like to end up, well, happy.” It’s extremely awkward material—one imagines satire’s audience doesn’t need the concept of satire explained to it—that functionally asks viewers not to take the show seriously. As many have noted, one difficulty of contemporary political satire is that real life already feels like a parody, so much so that our collective faith in actual parody is greatly diminished. We’ve all realized that the absurd really isn’t all that funny, and that satire abstracted from real-life consequences is often unequipped to say anything of consequence. By declaring its mission to criticize silliness with silliness, Happy Ending makes the unusual choice of admitting its shortcomings at the outset.
That’s a pity, because Happy Ending’s targets deserve the attention. Another problem with most contemporary satire is that it individuates its characters, like Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, from the systems that created and support them, like capitalism and white supremacy. It portrays bad actors as absurd exceptions from otherwise benevolent structures: to shout “This is not normal!” until normalcy finally returns. Happy Ending says something bold and necessary, which is that normalcy, as we know it, is bad too. It’s just, again, extremely awkward. The episodes I’ve seen unfold across two main segments. One is a long sketch, or series of sketches, exploring the episode’s subject—capitalism in episode one, imperialism in episode four—and the other is an interview with an expert. The sketches are much heavier on exposition than they are on comedy; most of the capitalism bit, an extended film noir parody, has characters literally explaining things to the camera, a fine choice for a talk show but intensely boring as sketch. Weirder still, Vila interviews his guests twice: first in character during the sketch segments, then out of character after commercial. In the pilot, his second interview with Matt Bruenig spends significant time rehashing information already covered in the first. It’s weird! The content itself is very interesting—Bruenig discusses Norway’s Government Pension Fund and Alaska’s Permanent Wealth Fund as tested examples of sustainable social safety nets—but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the writers ran out of things to say, so they just said things twice.
It doesn’t help that Vila is an uncomfortable performer who oscillates between stiff underacting and broad overacting. There’s no subtlety to Happy Ending, no trust in the audience to get that a joke is funny, or that a certain social evil is evil, without having it shouted at them or flashed across the screen in bold letters. The episodes I’ve seen are also overwhelmingly male—and one actress, Jennie Costa, appears in sexualized roles in both—which detracts quite a bit from the show’s authority to spread leftist politics. The whole thing feels like it was shot in a week by college students on a shoestring budget, and based on the network’s apparent reluctance to promote it, I doubt we’ll be seeing a second season. Which is all a great shame, because the viewpoints and guests it features are all too often excluded from anything close to the mainstream discourse. I hope this isn’t the last we see of them on Fusion.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.