Christopher Meloni stars on the new crime series.

Happy! - Pilot
Credit: Peter Kramer/Syfy

Christopher Meloni dies twice in the first 20 minutes of Happy! and he’s the show’s hero. Though hero is a strong word, and he’s never quite dead. When we meet Meloni’s Nick Sax, he points a couple guns at his head and pulls a couple triggers. Suddenly he’s at a dance party, blood cascading out of his skull like a fountain. It’s a dream sequence, or a druggy hallucination; this isn’t a series that gets bogged down in specifics. A few hours, four murdered gangsters, and one heart attack later, Nick wakes up in an ambulance and sees a tiny flying blue unicorn named Happy. The adorable animal sings him a song. Nick pulls a gun on a paramedic, demanding morphine. Did I mention it’s almost Christmas?

Nick’s a former cop, a current hitman, a piece of human wreckage. It’s as if every grim-faced tough guy from a Frank Miller comic book got poured into a bathtub full of Everclear and lit on fire. Assigned to kill gangster brothers, he winds up targeted by every criminal in New York City. And there’s Happy, voiced by Patton Oswalt. Happy’s an imaginary friend, but the little girl he loves has been kidnapped by a madman dressed like Santa. He needs Nick’s help. And Nick needs to survive long enough to get another drink.

The pilot episode is directed by Brian Taylor, who made the Crank movies with Mark Neveldine. If you’re a Crank fan — guilty, God help me! — you’ll recognize the kaleidoscopic action and frat-boy humor taken to quirky extremes. You’d think the concept of this show would be: “What if a cartoon character landed in a violent cop drama?” But Nick’s already kind of a cartoon character, and Meloni gives him a manic stumblebum grace. “We need guns and money,” he tells Happy. Add “lawyers” and it’s a Warren Zevon track, and the best parts of Happy! suggest the tone of Zevon’s funniest songs, which were also invariably his darkest.

Happy! is actually based on a comic book by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson. Morrison’s written better comics — Doom Patrol, The Invisibles, The Filth — but this is his first to get a live-action adaptation. That other stuff is psychedelic, idiosyncratic — so, difficult to film. Happy! is about a killer and his talking animal. It’s an attention-getting high concept for Syfy, a network that wants recognition for something besides Sharknado. The bad behavior is fun, but the plot construction can feel thin. Nick’s former flame, corrupt cop Meredith (Lili Mirojnick), tells him, “I think there is a goddamn underworld civil war brewing.” I have an allergy to pilots that signpost a “war” that seems unlikely to break out until the season finale, and I worry about how the second episode falls into a holding pattern, with lots of threats hovering on the horizon. (There’s a lengthy poker game, and it hasn’t been fun to watch poker on television in 14 years.)

But, um, there’s a unicorn! Oswalt gives Happy a sweetness edging into lunacy, and there’s a dark possibility that we’re witnessing this poor creature’s corruption. (Stuff gets snorted.) Consider Happy! an unexpected stocking stuffer. To quote Home Alone 2, another yuletide tale about a heroic psychopath torturing bad guys in New York City: Merry Christmas, you filthy animal. B+