'Merry Happy Whatever': TV Review

Adam Rose/Netflix
So-So-So!
11/28/2019

Dennis Quaid plays the grouchy patriarch in a Netflix family multicam Christmas sitcom that has its heart in the right place, but misplaces the laughs.

You could watch a lot of TV — heaven knows I do — and be only peripherally aware that in the past seven years Dennis Quaid's small-screen credits included a short-lived broadcast drama (Vegas), the second and third seasons of one Amazon show (Fortitude), the third season of another (Goliath), and apparently two full seasons of a series on Crackle (The Art of More). It's saying nothing about the quality of any of those ventures — Vegas was underrated and Fortitude is a hidden gem — to note that by these quirky standards, perhaps it isn't the least bit surprising to find Quaid now starring in a Netflix multicam Christmas comedy.

Yes, there's something vaguely unnerving about watching the star of The Big Easy and Innerspace leveraging his trademark devil-may-care smirk as the grouchy patriarch in a fundamentally wholesome family sitcom, but at least the result is festively mediocre.

Created by Tucker Cawley, who worked in the multicam dysfunctional comedy space at the highest level on Everybody Loves Raymond, Merry Happy Whatever is a Christmas event sitcom, which apparently is now a thing. The Meet the Parents-style premise finds Emmy Quinn (Bridgit Mendler) returning to her family home in Philadelphia for 10 days around Christmas and New Years with a new boyfriend (Brent Morin's Matt) in tow. The Quinns are a big Catholic family awash in Christmas traditions, all overseen by Don (Quaid), a vaguely conservative widower who works vaguely in law enforcement and surely would be monitoring this review to make sure I said "Christmas" as opposed to "holidays." Not that he's actually a committed conservative, because Merry Happy Whatever's motto might as well be "Amuse Some, Offend None."

In addition to Don and Emmy, the family includes Sean (Hayes MacArthur), Patsy (Siobhan Murphy) and Kayla (Ashley Tisdale), plus their respect spouses Joy (Elizabeth Ho), Todd (Adam Rose) and, at least until he asks Kayla for a divorce in the premiere, Alan (Tyler Ritter).

The Quinns are, as Joy puts it, "a G-rated cult," with enough rituals to easily fill an eight-episode series, between all of the family breakfasts, caroling, tree-decorating, church-going and, because this his ostensibly Philadelphia, Eagles-watching and Wawa-referencing. The in-laws — or "Quinn-laws" or "Outlaws," as they varyingly call each other — meet regularly at an inexplicably nearby bar for brief respites, where they simultaneously welcome Matt as one of them and are relieved at having a new uninitiated human shield to hide behind.

To say that you've seen basically every key incident in Merry Happy Whatever in a previous holiday film or TV episode would be understating how preprogrammed every episode feels. There's a lot of "Will Emmy and Matt be able to sneak away and have sex?" farce, and even the episodes that attempt to break with format do so in the least innovative of innovative ways, like the "Don says everybody has to be ready to go to church in 47 minutes" episode, which meanders instead of building any real-time intensity.

Mostly, storylines boil down to: Matt, whose character is exclusively engineered in terms of "whatever traits Don would disapprove of," wants to be involved in the episode's Quinn tradition. He means well, but makes a mess of it. Don says something extraordinarily low-level offensive and smirks at him, because that's almost all that Quaid's performance consists of here. Somebody does something to justify a hug. Sometimes Matt's embarrassments are effectively cringe-worthy. Mostly they're just perfunctory and stall due to how ill-defined Emmy and Matt are as characters, relying mostly on a sweet chemistry between Mendler and Morin that was put to better use on NBC's Undateable.

Occasionally, just for variation, the show gets to make fun of Don because he's in a very nascent flirtation with nurse Nancy (Garcelle Beauvais), which allows for Old Man Dating bumbling of the sort you might expect from The Unicorn. In totality, in fact, Merry Happy Whatever would be at home on CBS, requiring only trimming for time and not content. It's my friendly hint to most sitcom writers that your "Old people don't understand emojis" joke has probably been done already and the chances that you are the Billy Wilder of "Old people don't understand emojis" jokes are very low.

The basic material may be tired, but there's a certain precision to Merry Happy Whatever. Cawley and the writers avoid a lot of the most obvious punchlines within their familiar framework and, in the hands of the right actors — the show Ho and MacArthur are starring in is probably one I'd watch regularly — there's some real zip. A team of multicam savvy directors, led by Pamela Fryman, Betsy Thomas and Gloria Calderon Kellett, keep the show charging along at a brisk pace, never lingering too long on a joke that isn't landing and actually generating a couple "Aww" moments by the end.

In a cast dominated by Disney and sitcom veterans, Tisdale may be the surprise revelation, transitioning from hyperactive energy to earned emotion in the series' most effective arc. It's in no way a criticism of Rose's performance to say that Todd is part of the series' least effective arc, a lip-service attempt to acknowledge that not everybody celebrates Christmas that instead becomes a mass of neurotic Jewish stereotypes with little actual Jewish content.

Ultimately, Merry Happy Whatever seems scheduled and engineered to be a post-Thanksgiving algorithmic compromise and, as such, delivers few laughs and very little offense. If you're looking for a nearly identically premised comedy with just a hint more edge, hold out for Fox's The Moodys. And if you're holding out for the Citizen Kane of the Christmas event sitcom genre … well, so am I.

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Bridgit Mendler, Brent Morin, Ashley Tisdale, Hayes MacArthur, Adam Rose, Siobhan Murphy, Elizabeth Ho, Garcelle Beauvais

Creator: Tucker Cawley