Christopher Meloni gets Happy! with a flying cartoon horse: On the set of SYFY's crazy new crime show

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How do you follow being partnered with Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: SVU? How about being partnered with an animated flying unicorn? That is the scenario which is unfolding this October afternoon on the Brooklyn set of the new SYFY show Happy! — which premieres Dec. 6 — as former SVU star Christopher Meloni addresses an area of thin air where his Patton Oswalt-voiced cartoon costar will later be placed.  “I fully realize that I am talking to a unicorn, but my credibility has its limits!” the actor grumbles in character to his currently nonexistent partner while shooting a scene for the finale of the show’s debut season.

Yep, this is not your average crime show. “It’s either going to s–t the bed or it’s going to find an audience,” grins Meloni, who is also an executive producer on the series, between takes. “And either way is a good!”

Happy! is based on the 2013 graphic novel by artist Darick Robertson and famed comics writer Grant Morrison, and stars Meloni as a New York hero cop-turned depraved hitman named Nick Sax. After suffering a heart attack, Sax wakes up to find himself bedeviled by Happy, the imaginary friend of a young girl named Hailey, who has been kidnapped by a sinister Santa Claus. While Happy pleads with Sax to rescue Hailey, Meloni’s character recruits his new best friend — who only he can see — to help him cheat at poker and assist his escape from a Big Apple full of mob accomplices who wish him ill. “It’s about the most cynical man on earth being teamed up with a ridiculously upbeat, optimistic little cartoon creature — and it’s also set around Christmas,” says Morrison. “Part of our idea was to do a modern update of things like Scrooge or It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like A Christmas Carol-meets-Pulp Fiction, let’s say,” he adds with a laugh.

The show was developed by Morrison and Brian Taylor, co-director of the notoriously nuts Crank action movies and of 2011’s Nicolas Cage-starring superhero sequel Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a film which found the titular character literally peeing fire. “The graphic novel just seemed special,” says Taylor, explaining how he got involved in the project. “You see this deranged, beaten down dude with the Happy horse, you’re like, ‘There’s something there.’ I was all in.”

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Someone else who found the concept irresistible was Happy! showrunner Patrick Macmanus, whose previous credits include exec-producing the Netflix series Marco Polo. “I got a call from my agents one night,” he says. “They said, ‘If you respond to this script, you’ve got to get on a plane in the morning, you’ve got to fly to Los Angeles, it’s moving fast.’ I went into my office, and I read it, and I came out, and my wife said, ‘Is it any good?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever read in my life. It’s about this good cop-turned-bad cop-turned hitman, and it’s really well-written, and it’s gritty, and it’s sardonic, and I laughed my ass off multiple times.’ And she said, ‘I don’t understand, why is it stupid?’ And I said, ‘Well, because halfway through the pilot, he gets shot, wakes up, and there’s an animated blue unicorn following him around.’ And my wife — I remember it very clearly — took a drink of wine, and she said, ‘Well, you’re not going to Los Angeles tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve already booked my ticket!'”

Macmanus recalls that Morrison played an extremely active role in pitching ideas for the show. “I was told he has never been in a writers room before and, while I know that’s true, it is [as if] he’d been doing it for 30 years,” says the showrunner. “He was absolutely invaluable, for two reasons. The first was that he provided some just absolutely, off-the-wall, insane pitches that we never would have come up with on our own. The second thing is that he very expertly guided us when he felt like we had kind of skipped off the path of his original vision. But he also wasn’t precious about it. If he thought that we were doing something better, then he was all for it. There was never a sword that he was going to fall on. The best thing that I’ve heard, and I hope the writers agree with me on this, is that, on his last day, before he went back to Scotland, he said that we had made him proud. That means everything. You know, in the graphic novel world, there are some passionate fans out there! And as long as we’re not disappointing him, I’ve got to believe that the real fans of Grant Morrison are going to be pleasantly surprised by what we’ve done.”

According to Taylor, the casting of Meloni as the tough, wise-cracking Nick Sax was an easy choice. “He was so clearly the guy from day one and you just hope that he responded,” says the director. “The material is very odd. It’s not for everyone. I wrote him a letter, I spoke to him, we Skyped, and he really just got it. I mean, he really got it, he really responded, and he comes to it with so many ideas. You know, he’s a true producer on this show. He’s bringing a ton. He brings ideas on set, he brings ideas on scripts. On every level, he’s pouring everything that he has into it. I think it’s like a really special role for him. He’s very convincing as a kind of dramatic ass-kicking guy [and] his comedy is fantastic. But usually he doesn’t get to do them both. It’s either one of the other. So, this is his first chance to give us the whole Meloni experience bottled up in a character.”

Meloni himself admits that he couldn’t be, well, happier, about the way things are going with the show, particularly as he doesn’t have to worry about his costar fluffing his lines. “The other day, I had a scene with Happy in the car, and, on his side, you stick a camera there for 20 seconds and done. It’s fantastic. You know, he’s never late to set, you don’t have to worry about [his] hair and makeup, it’s great.”

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Taylor admits that overseeing what is in effect a buddy cop-comedy when only one of the buddies is “real” has its challenges. “It’s really fun for Meloni, because he doesn’t have to deal with other actors — he’s basically acting with himself,” laughs the director. “For me, obviously, it adds a level of complication to everything, to the point where all of us on the production have this secret hate-affair with Happy. It’s kind of like you always wanted the Coyote to finally catch the Roadrunner and eat him graphically on camera, raw, while screaming. That’s kind of how we feel about Happy. We really want him to get run over by a car or incinerated or something. But the approach to it has basically just been, Let’s make the show without him, so when he comes in, he just takes it to another level. Chris is as much of a cartoon character as Happy is, he’s so animated, and then when Happy comes in, it’s just like Wow! Like, all of a sudden, it’s completely different [with] what Patton Oswalt is bringing. It’s worth all the hassle of having the animated character when you see the final result.”

The show’s supporting cast includes Lili Mirojnick as a homicide detective named Meredith McCarthy and Twin Peaks: The Return actor Patrick Fischler, who plays a mob torturer called Smoothie. “A lot of it is taking characters that were just sort of fly-bys or tropes in the comic book and turning them into fully-fleshed, weird characters with their own mythologies and their own arcs,” says Taylor.

The first season of Happy! will eat up the entire plot of the original graphic novel. But Taylor reveals he and Morrison have already been plotting more adventures should the show get renewed. “Grant and I have actually worked it out for about four seasons, that just get increasingly more and more bizarre,” says the director. “We’ve got a lot of ideas for a second season, but I don’t like thinking ahead. I can’t stand movies that act like they’re having a sequel before anybody even likes it yet. It’s so annoying.”

Taylor even teases the possibility that Nicolas Cage might appear on the show further down the track. “I love that guy,” says Taylor. “If you’re a Nic Cage fan, he is exactly what you hope he would be. He’s all of it, and not only when the camera’s rolling either, he’s 24/7. He’s a force to be reckoned with. I would love to have him do something in Happy! season 2.”

EW initially assumes the director is just horsing around. But apparently not.

“Brian has brought that up several times,” says Macmanus. “I don’t know what role he would be in, yet. But, Jesus, I mean, if we could somehow have Christopher Meloni and Nic Cage face off in a grudge match of some fashion — I’d watch that!”

Watch the extreme trailer for Happy!, below.

Happy! premieres on Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on SYFY.

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