Spanglish and Seedy Theme Parks: MTV's Happyland Has a Decidedly Florida Flavor

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Public sex on theme park rides, fiercely independent Latinas, brawls between really high teens, and a dash of incest: These are the childlike joys of Happyland, the new MTV dramedy chronicling the day-drunk, partner-swapping, clear-skinned, young employees of a Disney-ish park.

The show, which debuts today at 11 p.m., is a very Florida enterprise.

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Executive producer Craig Zadan is a Miami native. Writer Erica Harrell is from Tampa. Lead actors Camille Guaty and Bianca Santos are of Cuban heritage; Guaty spent much of her childhood in Miami. Another star, Katherine McNamara, has family in the Keys.

And its roots are in the Orlando theme parks that the show's creator, 10 Things I Hate About You writer Ben Epstein, visited as a boy. He recalls getting lost in an employee-only area clouded with cigarette smoke and overhearing curses coming from inside the costumed characters' giant, smiling heads.

"It became a really weird mix of fantasy and reality," he remembers. Since then, he's done some research. Conclusion: "I would not hug one of those characters. The costumes get gross."

So yes, those characters are stoned and they're definitely watching your blouse flip up on the roller-coaster cameras.

The show is similar in tone to the MTV teen comedy Awkward. At its center is Guaty, in the role of young single mom Elena, who has for years played the famous princess character and brought fantasy to life for visitors -- and for more than a few male employees. Her cynical daughter, Lucy, grew up on the park grounds and yearns to experience something more. Surprise. She does.

In real life, Guaty grew up in Cutler Ridge and spent every summer of her childhood with her Cuban grandmother in Kendall -- and also Orlando. Back then she "became obsessed with the Electrical Parade at Disney World," she says. Like her character, her attraction to acting traces to those early days at the theme parks.

The 36-year-old's first television appearance was on Miami's local kids' show Duck, Duck, Goose. Among her first big acting gigs was the 2002 Disney TV movie Gotta Kick It Up!, in which she led a high school dance team to victory by incorporating the mystical secrets of Latin rhythms. This was in an era when the studio's other productions were about anti-gravity ice skates and tweens in space. In it, Hispanic culture is treated with similar science-fiction otherness.

But her career didn't take off, and after 15 years of guest spots as maids and victims, she was ready to quit acting and become a Pilates instructor. She even began training. "My management asked that I take two weeks to think about it," she remembers. Then, days before she was prepared to pull the plug, MTV picked up Happyland.

On the show, Guaty and California-born Bianca Santos share a language easily understood in Miami. "There's lots of Spanglish," Guaty says. "That's how I grew up."

But ethnicity isn't a forced issue in Happyland, she says. "It's no more relevant for me to lead a show than for a white person to lead a show," Guaty says.

According to Epstein, MTV was excited about Latina leads and encouraged their use of Spanglish in scripts. There are no subtitles, no one is threatened with deportation, and at least in the episodes screened for New Times, Pitbull's tour bus doesn't break down outside the cramped apartment Guaty's character shares with Santos'.

"If they have different histories and perspectives," Epstein says, "it just makes for better characters."

One of the most layered characters is played by McNamara. She began acting on Broadway in her early teens, developed a singing career, and has acted in Disney movies. All of that has garnered her a large fan base whose members call themselves "KitKats."

Her character, Harper, has a sharp tongue without being a bitch. She enjoys sex but isn't a slut. The redhead is more than male privilege grafted onto skin that is as pore-free as an action figure's. She is a multidimensional human being.

McNamara has a disquieting intelligence and drive. "I graduated from high school when I was 14, and I've always had a passion for economics," she says. Now 18, McNamara is on her way to earning an MBA from the University of North Carolina. "A lot of my friends are just starting college," she says almost sheepishly.

Here is someone who has long held subscriptions to both Teen Vogue and The Economist. She believes her character has "the best of intentions" when it comes to inadvertent heartbreaking. McNamara likens a person's contradictions to those of a theme park: "It's a happy place, sure. But there's always a dark side, that ride in the back part that's old and broken down and where, uh, things happen."

And that's where you might find Josh Groban, the 25-million-record-selling singer who is far more haggard on Happyland than his legions of Grobanites may be accustomed to seeing him.

Groban plays Dirty Dave, a local degenerate who pops up in many of the night scenes. There is speculation among the cast members that Groban had been wandering the shut-down theme-park set and his real-life habit of urinating on walls was worked into the show to salvage scenes he kept interrupting.

"There are bricks in those walls that I can't even start to guess how much they'd go for on eBay," Guaty muses.

In a way, Happyland is designed to talk to teens. Epstein says he's "always been inspired by shows like Friday Night Lights or Buffy that treat teenage emotions as totally legitimate, not just a step on the way to adulthood." And though the jokes are funny and the sex and drugs are appropriately sexy and druggy, that quality is the production's greatest strength.

There is a soapy side of the show, which swaps bed-hopping for ride-hopping, hot-tub-hopping, and storage-room-hopping. If the sexiness Stasi were looking to make a raid, they'd do well to start on the Happyland set, an actual theme park in Ontario, California, that could double as a game reserve for hunks and hardbodies. "Women at any age shouldn't be punished for their sexuality," Epstein says. "Men should, probably."

But Happyland shines when dwelling on the more bizarre qualities of theme-park life. With neck veins throbbing, the park's instructors bitterly correct the postures and inflections of the young characters who have usurped their old roles. The royal characters look down on the cowboy raccoons who in turn look down on the production staff, who sneer at the royalty. The dreams of small children who have traveled hundreds of miles to Happyland are in the sticky, roaming hands of drunk, oversexed employees living in a suspended childhood of their own.

There are moments when it feels like Happyland is holding back, like there's something going on in the background that's darker and deeper than the frothy spectacle. There are the ubiquitous signs featuring Happyland mascot Ricky Raccoon that recall Kim Jong-Un more than Mickey Mouse. Cringe along as McNamara's character earnestly praises her clumsy boyfriend for reminding her of "when you see a fat person exercising."

Indulging the sexier qualities of the show limits the room for exploring this side of the meticulously produced show. This is unfortunate for those of us who look to MTV for cutting social commentary rather than glistening underbutt. Happyland could conceivably become a sort of Theme Parks & Recreation if given enough time to outgrow its libido and embrace its more subtle, multilayered comedy.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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