What do Christmas magic, the wonder of a child’s imagination, and SVU’s Detective Stabler pissing with a fire extinguisher have in common? You’ll find all of them in Happy!, the SyFy adaptation of a truly twisted Grant Morrison comic book. And if you want to see what’s perhaps the exact opposite of a heartwarming holiday special, go watch it on Netflix.
Here’s the setup: Nick Sax (Christopher Meloni, most famously of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) is a disgraced ex-NYPD cop turned hitman. He’s semi-homeless, constantly drunk, and has the durability and self-preservation instincts of your average Grand Theft Auto protagonist. After a bungled hit gives him a near death experience, Nick starts seeing Happy, a tiny animated unicorn voiced by Patton Oswalt (who’s no stranger to animation, having starred in Ratatouille).
Warning: Even the trailer below is mildly Not Safe For Work and might disturb young kids. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Happy tells Nick that he’s the lovable innocent imaginary friend of a lovable innocent little girl, who’s been kidnapped by a nightmare pedophile version of Santa Claus. Thanks to a medical cocktail delivered at gunpoint, Nick is the only one who can see him. With Happy’s incorporeal help, Nick has to rescue the girl and uncover the conspiracy that led to her kidnapping, stumbling through the nightmarish circles of NYC organized crime, depraved torture fetishists, and (shudder) children’s television programming.
Despite the setup that sounds like a modern version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Happy! is in no way, shape, or form meant for children. Within the first minute of the pilot, you’ll see Nick fantasize about suicide, dancing with Christmas-themed roller go-go girls while his disintegrating skull fragments twinkle in the starlight. And that’s far from the most shocking or disturbing image in Happy!‘s eight-episode first season.
But that seems to be the point. The story juxtaposes the darkest tropes of the noir detective genre with the saccharine hope of children’s animation and worn-out holiday stories. The casting is especially brilliant: Oswalt is in fine form making the titular Happy essentially a My Little Pony character hanging out in the last place you’d find one. And it’s impossible not to imagine Nick Sax as Meloni’s iconic Elliot Stabler, beaten down by decades of nightmare-inducing work and all but resigned to a bloody ignoble career as the kind of foul-mouthed bottom-feeder he used to lock up.
As a brawling, be-scarved, gun-toting hitman, Nick is essentially indestructible to a degree that strains believability—or at least it would if the series didn’t make it clear almost immediately that straight-up magic is in play. A memorable scene from the early episodes has Happy helping Nick cheat at a poker game with drug dealers, whispering hands that only he can hear. That’s before Happy innocently stumbles into a brick of cocaine, which somehow affects his imaginary body and sends him on a Daffy Duck-style manic episode. Nick abandons the cards and simply murders everyone in the room.
The surreal, indulgent violence of the series will distract you from what’s actually a pretty interesting bit of dark fantasy. Interwoven into the plot are a somewhat stereotypical Italian-American mob family headed up by “Blue” Scaramucci (Ritchie Coster), an intentionally creepy children’s entertainer Sonny Shine (Christopher Fitzgerald), and a straight-up terrifying torturer and fixer euphemistically called “Smoothie” (Patrick Fischler).
The story doesn’t have a lot for its female characters to do except react to the madness of the situation. But in that limited capacity, young kidnappee Hailey (a very promising Bryce Lorenzo) and her mother Amanda (Medina Senghore) form a surprisingly moving emotional core that keeps the audience invested in the endgame. Merideth McCarthy (Lili Mirojnick) is Nick’s former police partner, a fellow dirty cop yet to be caught, and his reluctant helper inside the NYPD.
At the end of eight episodes, you’ll find a conclusion that mostly satisfies, while keeping the protagonists and most of the villains in play for possible further shenanigans. There’s a second, Easter-themed season of Happy! that’s also on Netflix, and while its more unhinged moments are possibly the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen on American television, the lowered stakes and repeated beats make it less interesting. Happy!‘s high concept can’t survive for very long before breaking down, so it’s not the end of the world that it won’t ever see a third season.
Happy! is holiday-themed watching that constantly surprises, if you can stomach its more indulgent dips into gross (in every sense of the word) situations. Check it out if you’re tired of Die Hard reruns, and you wish Olaf from Frozen would occasionally pull out a Desert Eagle and ice some mobsters.