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Chris Meloni in 'Happy!'

Burnout Ex-Cop Teams with Cartoon Horse in Syfy’s ‘Happy!’

Just when it seems like we have run out of interesting comic-book characters to base movies and TV shows around, along comes Grant Morrison and Syfy with a Christmas present way, way out of the box: a series adaptation of Morrison’s four-issue limited series graphic novel, Happy!

And ‘graphic’ is definitely the right word for it, as the series begins with a highly inebriated Nick Sax (Chris Meloni, Law & Order, in a very different mode) puking blood into a urinal and then fantasizing his own spectacular bloody suicide, complete with disco choreography. We soon learn that Nick used to be a cop — the best detective in New York, as a matter of fact — until he left the NYPD behind some unspecified disgrace and became a coke-snorting drunken contract killer with a fresh assignment just in time for Christmas.

So far, you may be thinking, that is not a particularly original setup, but there’s more: it seems that a young girl named Haley with a variety of imaginary friends has lost track of her mother at a kids’ outdoor concert (an outdoor kids’ concert in New York? at night? at Christmastime? Just go with it, there’s going to be bigger disbelief to suspend before we’re done) and fallen into the clutches of an exceedingly creepy, crack-smoking Santa (Joseph Reitman) who appears to be collecting little girls. When he drills a hole into Haley’s crate so she can breathe (he’s a humane creepy kidnapping Santa), one of her imaginary friends escapes and goes to find help.

Pretty soon, Nick Sax has all but begrudgingly adopted Happy, the flying purple unicorn (voiced by comic and King of Queens star Patton Oswalt), as his new partner, and a new buddy cop vigilante duo is born.

Meloni looks to be having the time of his life here, armed with a seemingly endless supply of action-hero quips, and getting to play a range of tones from wisecracking badass to world-weary cop to straight up silly comedy interacting with a cartoon unicorn, doubting his sanity all the while. A scene where Nick has to play poker, despite being an obviously awful player, is particularly amusing. Patton Oswalt is a perfect choice for the voice of Happy, with just the right kiddie-show lilt in his voice but able to turn it around to determined or exasperated as the scene demands without losing the essence of the character.  And though this is far from the first gritty crime story to be set at Christmas, Happy! makes the most of it, with some olde-tymey Christmas music and a distinct visual style setting a distinct tone that is by turns super creepy, immersive, and an effective underline to the jokes.

The plot is pleasingly intricate, with exposition expertly doled out without calling attention to itself and a number of subplots, including an interesting Macguffin in the form of a password sought after by the entire New York underworld; Sax’s former partner Meredith (Lili Mirojnick) agreeing to chase him down to get out of debt to the Mob; a couple of top-notch villains, including crime boss Mr. Blue (Ritchie Coster) and his torture-happy henchman Smoothie (Patrick Fischler, Mad Men), and a few larger mysteries, like: if Happy is imaginary, how does he know real things from the real world that Nick doesn’t? How does Nick manage to not die despite so frequently suffering mortal injuries (at one point, Meredith tells paramedics loading Nick into an ambulance, “he’ll live — he always does,” and at another Nick grumbles, “I don’t think I can die”)? And why does everyone, including Happy himself, call Happy a horse when he’s clearly a winged unicorn?

It will be interesting to see where the series goes (we’ve seen only the first two episodes) as the source material was only a four-issue comic book, and each episode appears to encompass one issue, so the creators — who include comic creator Grant Morrison — are going to have to start improvising probably before end of the first season. In any case, this show is a great holiday treat for the hardened cynic on your Christmas list — but make no mistake, cartoon horse or no, it is not for the faint of heart.

Happy! premieres at 10pm ET Wednesday on Syfy.