'The Moodys': TV Review

Formulaic to the extreme, but occasionally amusing.

Ready for TV's second comedic series depiction of the buildup to a dysfunctional family Christmas in less than a week? This one has Denis Leary and Elizabeth Perkins.

If Leo Tolstoy were to develop a holiday special — I'm thinking either War & Peace & Mistletoe or A Very Anna Karenina Christmas — he would be forced to acknowledge that while happy families are all alike and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, every dysfunctional family at Christmastime is, apparently, oddly alike.

That's my critical takeaway after spending much of the past two weeks watching eight episodes of Netflix's Merry Happy Whatever and six episodes of Fox's The Moodys. The Christmas event series comedy is an idea whose time has come, but creative excitement is not the same as creative achievement, and watched in near tandem, there's a lot of repetitiveness and sameness between the two early entries in the format. I can assertively say that The Moodys is the fresher Christmas event comedy, actually generating several decent laughs on the back of its very strong cast, but it's by small gradations and not Yuletime leaps.

Adapted by Rob Greenberg and Bob Fisher and Tad Quill from an Australian comedy, The Moodys is another story of a large extended family that gathers together — in a version of Chicago that's a hair more convincing than the Philadelphia of Merry Happy Whatever — for a multiday set of pre-Christmas and Christmas rituals during which time secrets will be unearthed, buried resentments will rise to the surface and hugs will be distributed amid the singing of season chestnuts.

Substitute Denis Leary in for Merry Happy Whatever star Dennis Quaid as the grouchy, tradition-obsessed patriarch, with Elizabeth Perkins as the clan's intro to psychology-obsessed matriarch. The three Moody kids are Jay Baruchel as the perpetually disappointing eldest son, Chelsea Frei as the high-achieving middle child and Francois Arnaud as the frequently self-destructive youngest. The kids are dealing with various personal dramas — Baruchel's Sean Jr. still lives at home and seeks direction, Frei's Bridget's marriage is imploding and Arnaud's Dan can't get traction as a photographer or in relationships — and their parents have at least one confession they're holding onto for the holidays.

The various signpost events are identical between Merry Happy Whatever and The Moodys, and while I get that that may be reflective of the inherently structured nature of Christmas and the desire to push that into sitcom form, the progression from tree trimming to caroling to midnight mass to whatever can feel like working through a checklist.

Although it isn't very authentic in its Chicago location, The Moodys has a very basic single-cam look that simulates some wintery charm, especially when it gets to focus on Sean Jr.'s dead-end job at an ice-skating rink. Instead of the broad, laugh-wringing multicam punchlines of Merry Happy Whatever, The Moodys goes for frantic physical shtick, even opening in medias res with Perkins' character running through the family abode screaming and firing a BB-gun at the Christmas decorations, in what proves to be an appropriate scene setter.

More than anything, what sets The Moodys apart is the top of the call sheet. Nobody blends caustic ranting with periodic warmth quite like Leary — maybe Bill Burr in Netflix's wildly superior F Is for Family — and within the PG-rated confines of both broadcast TV and a general holiday reverence, this is a decent outlet for what he does so well. Perkins, who has struggled to find an equally effective post-Weeds vehicle, is in fine and amusing form and she and Leary pair well.

After proving how well he can carry a project like Man Seeking Woman, Baruchel returning to nervous third-banana status is a bit of a regression, but his stuttering boyishness is always good for some amusement. Arnaud (Midnight, Texas) was more comfortable and funny than I think I've ever seen him before and Frei — totally new to me — gets better and better as the series goes along. Venezuelan actress María Gabriela de Faría proves that she's one to watch, because her storyline — as the girlfriend of a Moody cousin (Josh Segarra's Marcos, a refugee from a different, more cartoonish show) who catches Dan's wandering eye — is a predictable mess and yet she almost makes it appealing.

It's striking how many of the storylines are either predictable messes or rushed messes that only work if the cast sells them hard enough. There's an obligatory cancer plotline, an obligatory infidelity plotline, strange and poorly developed professional subplots and something icky and misconceived with a homeless couple. Attempts to bring in snark to balance the Christmas-y sweetness almost invariably come across as sour or ill-considered at best and shamelessly manipulative at worst. I get the allure of building a full sitcom season into the tight Christmas season window, but somebody needs more awareness of how relationship arcs shoehorned into this period — take Bridget's flirtation with a high school acquaintance played sweetly and nearly pointlessly by Kevin Bigley — are very difficult to develop in any plausible way.

The Moodys seems, if nothing else, to have a decent sense of how flawed its main characters are, even if those flaws are rarely as clever or interesting as the creators appear to hope. From top to bottom, it's a family of messes and they're smart and believable in poking at each other's present and past failings and calling each other on various layers of bullshit. Unlike the location, that part here is authentic. But whether what people want between spending time with their own flawed families at Thanksgiving and getting back together with them again at Christmas is to devote even more hours with a fictional family they aren't required to love remains a question mark.

I'm not sure that I've seen any real evidence that the limited comedy series built around Christmas traditions needs to become a Christmas tradition on its own.

Cast: Denis Leary, Elizabeth Perkins, Jay Baruchel, Chelsea Frei, Francois Arnaud

Creators: Bob Fisher, Rob Greenberg and Tad Quill from the Australian series

Back-to-back episodes air Dec. 4, 9 and 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.