When the ABC sitcom Happy Endings finished filming its first season, the cast and writers did what any self-respecting sitcom crew would do: They rented a party bus and set course for Vegas. The bus had neon lights and a stripper pole and was outfitted to be a Damn Good Time. It ended up sitting in eight hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic while the cast—who had wrapped at 4 a.m., a mere handful of hours before the party bus departed the Paramount lot—tried with varying degrees of success to cover up the fact that no one really wanted to be going to Vegas. “Everyone was kind of like, ‘What are we doing?’ ” says Casey Wilson, an SNL alum whose character, Penny, is the show’s perpetual optimist. “People were nauseous and sick. Damon [Wayans Jr.] was lying down on the seats with pillows over his eyes trying to sleep. So it wasn’t quite like the party bus that you know and love.”
In the way that life can imitate art, the first season of Happy Endings also tried with varying degrees of success to be a Damn Good Time and turned out instead to be an Okay Time With Potential. The key elements were certainly in place—talented writers, esteemed producers, and an enviable cast with a solid improv pedigree. But the show was hemmed in by a premise established in the first two minutes of the pilot, in which Elisha Cuthbert’s character, Alex, leaves Zach Knighton’s character, Dave, at the altar for a guy who glides into the church on Rollerblades, while their four closest friends (played by Wilson, Wayans, Eliza Coupe, and Adam Pally) look on in horror. The setup allowed the audience to delve into an established friendship circle in medias res at a defining moment when the group had to decide whether to splinter. But it also meant that one character was locked into spending a season dealing with the emotional repercussions of having been jilted in a brutal and public fashion (those Rollerblades!) while the other was locked into apologizing for said jilting. What was intended to be an ensemble show ended up being rooted in the two straight-men characters while their more hilarious sidekicks were sidelined. Tellingly, the network aired the two episodes that were meant to follow the pilot—and dealt most directly with the fallout of the ruined wedding—very late in the first season, relying on other episodes to try to hook its audience. The show still managed to pull ahead of the season’s other Friends-type spawn (Perfect Couples, Traffic Light, Mad Love) with little to no network promotion, but the cast and crew didn’t pin their hopes on getting a second season. When they did, “I got shitfaced immediately,” says the show’s creator, David Caspe.
“I bought a new house. Well, my wife bought a house, and I came along with her,” adds executive producer Jonathan Groff.
Regrouping for a second season provided Happy Endings with the opportunity to capitalize on its underdog mentality, what Pally calls “a fuck-you attitude that is very apparent and important to the show. I think it’s let us kind of say, ‘We’re going to do what we do no matter what, because it’s not as if anyone’s watching.’ ” Rather than improve ratings by noticeably changing course (as Parks and Recreation had done after its first season), the cast and crew leaned into the weirdness of their comedy. Coupe and Wayans, who play married couple Jane and Brad turned their characters’ initial overachieving-bobo quirks into a full-blown orgy of neuroses—the second season finds Brad wearing a shirtdress because “Daddy likes a deep tuck,” and Jane stalking a kid she thinks might be her egg-donor baby (in fact the parents didn’t use her egg because they thought she seemed just the kind of crazy who would stalk her egg-donor baby). Wilson gave her singleton an ability to rebound that verges on masochism. And Pally’s gay character, Max, so brilliantly overhauls TV’s go-to flamboyant stereotype that in one episode he slovenly hibernates for the winter, like a bear. “It’s like we’re all kind of sharing a brain, and we’re just like, ‘Yeah, this is the direction [the show] needs to go in,’ and we all pushed it into that direction,” says Coupe. “We’ll come up with stuff together and be like, ‘Let’s do this.’ And sometimes there will be a director who’ll say, ‘Please give us a normal take,’ and we’ll be like, ‘No, we want to do it our way.’ And what’s funny is they’ll cave in.”
Luckily, the studio also followed suit. “Maybe we showed just enough promise in the pilot and in the first few episodes that nobody ever went, like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa’ and sort of freaked us out or made us change course in a way that was inorganic,” Groff says. “To their credit, they left us alone a little bit. They didn’t get nervous or lose sight of what they liked about it originally, and they had confidence that we would get there.”