Review

Talking unicorns and Chris Meloni make 'Happy!' a weirdly dark ride

As viewers of HBO’s “Oz” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” know, few actors glare quite as effectively as Chris Meloni. Gruff and intense, Meloni could have built a solid career as a character actor solely by playing square-jawed tough guys and chiseled men of few words. But something was clearly awakened in him in 2001, when he costarred in the cult comedy “Wet Hot American Summer” as Gene, the gruff and intense summer camp chef whose best friend was a can of vegetables.

Thus, in addition to later roles in relatively straightforward dramas like “Underground” and “True Blood,” Meloni has become a reliable source for a uniquely taut and wild-eyed brand of weirdness in comedies such as “Wonder Showzen,” “Veep” and now “Happy!,” a new action-comedy series that arrives Wednesday on SyFy.

Here he portrays Nick Sax, a fallen ex-cop turned conflicted but very adept hit man who would probably be described as “a Chris Meloni type” even before you’re introduced to his eventual costar — a small, pale blue flying unicorn voiced by comic Patton Oswalt.

Given the credentials of those ingredients — Oswalt, whose imaginative wit is stronger than ever on his recent Netflix special “Annihilation,” and Meloni’s unhinged sense of commitment — oddball comic success seems assured. Except “Happy!,” an adaptation of a 2013 graphic novel by revered comic writer Grant Morrison, has far more in common with the blood-spattered toughs of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” than, say, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

And in fairness to Morrison, who executive produces the series, “Happy!” announces its intentions early. After a long, bug-eyed look in the mirror at his local dive bar in the show’s first episode, Sax indulges in a disco-scored blood fountain of suicide fantasy before taking a job killing a gangster’s mafia bro sons. Not long after, on a differently decrepit side of town, a little girl is abducted at an outdoor concert by a man in a grotesque, doll-adorned Santa costume. These grim events must come together, and that’s where Happy comes in.

Tiny and unfailingly cheerful, Happy is the little girl’s imaginary friend, who flies across town to find the one man who can save her in Sax. Unfortunately, he’s preoccupied with running afoul of the various crime syndicates that make up the big city, which is so corrupt that it encompasses the police and, to an extent, Sax’s detective ex-partner (Lili Mirojnick).

Sax and Happy at last come together in a hospital, and while it’s not explained why he can see the little flying horse (“My imagination is very limited,” he says, trying to resolve what’s hovering in front of him. “It usually involves inflicting pain in ways that may not have occurred to most.”), suffice to say he can. Soon, a sort of bad cop/wholesome cop dynamic is formed, with Happy saying things like, “We’re in a family-size jar of pickles, Nick!” as Sax brutally kills the many who get in his way.

Needless to say, “Happy!” is a show built on juxtapositions, and while gory grit can make for a solid counterweight to such a proudly silly premise, the fact that we’ve seen this sort of stylized nihilism before grows more difficult to ignore.

The heavy-browed Patrick Fischler of “Mad Men” and “Twin Peaks” leaves no unsettling character tic unturned in the playing of his fetishistic mob killer Mr. Smoothie, and a goateed Ritchie Coster goes full De Niro in portraying the sadistic mob boss Mr. Blue. Even a “Jerry Springer Show” fantasy sequence for Sax in the second episode feels borrowed from another, more innocent vision of a fallen society. Apart from the little girl’s still-mysterious mother (SyFy released only the first two episodes for review), who quietly posts fliers and approaches an indifferent police force for help, there aren’t many decent humans in the world of “Happy!”

That said, it takes more than an oppressively bleak tone to keep down Meloni, who relishes every brusque one-liner and cockeyed look of disbelief, and may be the only actor who could effectively cause so much mayhem in combat boots and an open-backed hospital gown. Oswalt also claims a few moments of lunacy, though in the early going, he’s often relegated to lobbing lines over Meloni’s blood-spattered action. He carries a swear jar that should get a workout along Sax’s road to redemption, but Happy also may be as corruptible as everyone else after inadvertently inhaling drugs used by one of the show’s many doomed hoods.

As a comedy or even an action series, “Happy!” is far from perfect. But if you’re up for venturing down a dark path where the only one seemingly capable of the titular emotion is someone’s imaginary friend, it still might make you smile.

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‘Happy!’

Where: Syfy

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

chris.barton@latimes.com

Follow me over here @chrisbarton.

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An earlier version of this review misidentified Lili Mirojnick's character as Sax's ex-wife. She is his ex-partner.
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