Saturday, August 12, 2017

Webseries Review: Happy Playland

Jen Smith, Neena Dekkers-Reihana, and Dani Yourukova in Happy Playland.
The Candle Waster's first original series lives up to its name.


“What if I’m done with my plans? Does that change who I am?”


Most of Happy Playland’s problems could be solved if there were simply more Happy Playland.


The Candle Wasters’ newest series tells the story of Billie (Neena Dekkers-Reihana), Zara (Dani Yourukova), and Cris (Jen Smith), three employees of the soon-to-be-shuttered Wellington branch of Happy Playland, a slightly downtrodden party and play center for children. Love springs among the ball pits as Billie and Zara fall for each other, and the main story of the series is the beginning of their relationship — from first meeting to flirtation to hook-up to dating to first fight to commitment — told primarily through Billie’s perspective.


Oh, and it’s a musical.


There’s a lot going on here, narratively, tonally, and conceptually. Happy Playland swings between intense interpersonal and psychological drama, dry humor, and straight-up surrealism, using music to accentuate every shift. Some of the musical numbers are traditional “characters sing the action” songs, like you might see on Broadway. Some of them are kinda-sorta diegetic, in the style of Once — there’s an episode where Zara gets in an argument with a group of street musicians, and they incorporate her relationship drama into their act. Some of them take place in a featureless black room, outside of the “real” action, which functions as a place for the characters to play out their internal monologues and daydreams. (Most of the black room sequences reflect Billie’s thoughts, but one delightful episode-long example belongs to Cris.)


What’s magical is how much all of those tones and conceits and narratives work together, rather than against each other. TCW have always had a deft hand with tone and humor, but with Happy Playland, they’ve gotten to the point where it really seems effortless. Why not portray Cris’ attempts to get Billie and Zara on a date as a high-wire act set in the black room, where Billie and Zara read out their text messages in affected voices while Cris pirouettes between them, dressed in a ski suit? Instead of cutting between locations like a boring normal show, why not have Billie and Cris’ long-distance video chat take place all in one room, with a slippered and bathrobed Cris running across the break room to get her room service? Why not, if it all works as well as it does? The series really is TCW’s playland, where they can try out any strange conceit or wild tonal shift that they want.


It all comes together in episode seven, “COMMITMENT,” which combines Billie’s black-room internal monologue with a traditional duet between Billie and Zara in the break room, building all three voices into an intense, cathartic musical portrayal of a panic attack — and ending with an ironic, intentionally humorous cut to Cris, the comic relief character, collapsing melodramatically. Everything in TCW’s toolbox is on display here: nuanced psychological realism (the panic attack and subsequent, non-musical cool-down is maybe the most accurate depiction of anxiety I’ve ever seen); careful character writing and narrative pacing (Zara’s story peaks, as she totally commits to Billie by deleting Tinder, at just the right moment to add pressure to Billie’s choice between moving to Auckland to act and staying in Wellington with Zara); hyper-realistic dialogue; timing; music; humor; surrealism. “COMMITMENT” aims unimaginably high, and hits its mark.


Of course, none of this would work at all without Dekkers-Reihana and Yourukova and Smith, who take that ridiculously tall order and somehow manage to elevate it. All of them flip from comedy to drama and back again easily. Smith’s comedic physicality pops out, Dekkers-Reihana’s expressive face draws you in, and Yourukova’s grounded presence holds everything steady. In particularly, “COMMITMENT” draws impressive dramatic performances out of Dekkers-Reihana and Yourukova, and Smith’s comedy not only shines in, but absolutely anchors, “THREE SIMPLE TRICKS TO GET YOUR FRIENDS TOGETHER.”


The series actually makes less ironic use of the Happy Playland setting than you might expect. There are occasional jokes about checking the jungle gym for vomit and children burying each other alive in the ball pit, but fundamentally, Happy Playland is a place that all three characters want to be. It gives Billie, an actor since childhood, a space to perform; it gives Zara, an education activist, a job working with children; it gives Cris, a bubbly social media star in the making, a center of real-life social interaction.


Which makes sense, because at its most essential, Happy Playland is a story about redefining success. Billie, who comes to Happy Playland in order to meet her parents’ demands that she do something with her acting that makes money, is offered her big break on a soap opera, but ultimately decides that she’s happier where she is. Zara, who’s been leading an effortlessly casual life, realizes that maybe a little bit of complication is ultimately more rewarding. And Cris, whose social media ranking is on the rise, refocuses her attention in the real world.


Billie’s story, in particular, shines. Well, maybe shines is the wrong word, because really, Billie’s choosing not to shine. All her life, Billie (urged on by her parents) has been working toward being a “New Zealand famous” actor, but when faced with the prospect of actually living that life, she’s overwhelmed. She chooses instead the safe, the comfortable, the happy.


It’s not a traditional story, but to anyone who’s ever gotten several years down a life path and suddenly thought, What the hell am I doing, it’s a deeply familiar one. As Billie sings in “I’ll Be Here” (the panic attack song from “COMMITMENT”), giving up on long-held dreams really can feel like giving up on your entire identity. Billie’s inner monologue wanders down every twisty-turny path of that decision: The draw of the dream, the ease of following your plans to their inevitable conclusion, the difficulty of throwing that all away to stay where you’re comfortable, the worry that either choice might be one you regret forever, the terrible fear of giving up. There aren’t enough stories about giving up. Sometimes, it really is the right thing to do.


When it comes to the stories other than Billie’s, though, the seams start to show a little. The basic premise of Billie and Zara’s relationship — made explicit in their final duet — is that Zara makes Billie’s life quieter and easier, while Billie makes Zara’s harder and more complicated. Happy Playland’s lovely, honest climax rests on Billie’s choice between an intimidating, conventionally successful life as a mainstream actor in Auckland, or a quiet, smaller-scale, more manageable life in Wellington. Zara is a big part of that decision, but the decision is explicitly not “Zara or success.” It’s a decision about how Billie wants to define success and happiness for herself.


What’s curious about this climax is how much it sidelines Zara. Her role is entirely to press Billie for an answer. The beautiful, relationship-defining parallel — Zara makes Billie’s life easier, Billie makes Zara’s life harder — is mentioned only in passing. Well, that’s not true. Billie sings a lot about how much easier Zara makes her life. It’s Zara’s life that gets only a fleeting mention.


It’s not that the idea of Billie complicating Zara’s life comes out of nowhere. There’s a whole (strange, wonderful, did I mention strange?) episode, “STREET PERFORMERS GET HECKLED BY RANDOM GIRL,” devoted to the drama that Billie brings to Zara’s chill existence, and Zara’s frustration shows up in smaller, more mundane ways throughout the series. Zara likes casual, and Billie is the opposite of casual. Zara likes direct communication, and Billie avoids talking about uncomfortable topics for as long as possible. The conflict is clear, and the resolution, in “COMMITMENT,” is clear as well: Zara chooses Billie, despite the drama.


But we never really see how Zara gets from point A to point B. The closest we get is a passing line, in “STREET PERFORMERS”: But even I know how to make a relationship work / I knew I'd be ready when I found my kinda girl. Zara’s reasoning can be intuited — clearly, Billie is her kinda girl. But given the huge importance of Zara’s decision to commit, both to her character and the larger story, it really feels like we should see more of that reasoning laid out. (A good, old-fashioned love song would’ve done a lot of the work.) Especially since, given the series’ short runtime, we don’t actually get to see that much of Billie and Zara’s relationship for ourselves. Zara’s nearly half the show, and there just isn’t time to show all of her story.


Playing a smaller role, but more underserved, is Cris. Cris is an absolute delight who spends most of the series taking terrible pictures for Instagram and good-naturedly mining Billie and Zara’s lives for drama she can live through vicariously. Then, a sudden crisis in episode eight (her flatmates kicking her out) leads her to drastically rethink how she’s defining success and happiness in her life. She suddenly realizes how empty her internet fame is, shallow technology likes =/= friendship blah blah blah, you’ve heard it all before. It functions pretty well as a parallel/catalyst for Billie, who’s also working through questions about whether she’s looking for fulfillment in the wrong places. But there’s just not enough there to make it work, in its own right, as anything other than a stock storyline about the perils of social media.


The proximate cause of Cris’ distress (her flatmates kicking her out) relies on the idea that Cris’ life is fundamentally empty in a way that makes her unhappy. Prior to this crisis, though, Cris never shows signs of being anything other than blissfully happy with her shallow internet fame. Frankly, Cris isn’t around enough for us to get a great look at her life — she spends half of the series on vacation in Queensland. So if Cris’ life is empty of meaningful interactions, there’s no way for us to tell. To quote The Brothers Bloom, I love a good tonal shift, and there’s something particularly wonderful about stripping down a cartoonish character to get at the real emotions underneath. But there has to be something underneath to find. When we peel back Cris’ layers, all we find is another trope.


Zara’s story, and to a lesser degree Cris’, could both be improved simply by having more of them. More time to see Zara and Billie interact. More of Zara’s inner monologue. More of Cris, period.


And honestly, more Happy Playland would be a wonderful thing. Outside of a very few false notes, the entire series is a delight. It’s funny, it’s weird, it’s inventive, it’s honest. It’s rhythmic, even when there’s no music playing. It’s captivating. There should be more like it in the world.


Random Stuff


  • I touched on it briefly in the review proper, but it deserves to be repeated: All three of Happy Playland’s actors are phenomenal, and all of the music is incredibly impressive, especially “Stop and Think” and “I’ll Be Here.”
  • Happy Playland is The Candle Wasters’ first totally original series, and I think we can safely say that surrealism, communication, commitment, and relationship drama are all subjects that they’re independently interested in, and not just a byproduct of their Shakespearean source material.
  • Since Bright Summer Night is canonically a webseries in the universe of NMTD/LoLiLo, I like to think that Happy Playland is as well, and that the street performers’ song about drama is therefore referencing Bea and Ben, not Beatrice and Benedick. (Costa’s input, no doubt. Or maybe Paige’s!)

  • Speaking of which, I spy Bea’s “We Can Do It!” shirt on Zara during that episode.
  • Also, although nobody mentions it, the street musicians are Cris’ flatmates. Just, y’know. Because. I’m getting “Bea and Paige were high school friends” flashbacks.
  • It hardly has to be mentioned, but @cristagram123 is a real thing.
  • As much as I love Cris as comic relief, Smith’s acting in the bit of the final episode where she puts the selfie on Instagram without a filter did more to sell me on her as a real person than anything in the previous nine episodes put together.
  • There is an actual Happy Playland in Houston!

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