‘Merry Happy Whatever’ is a lot more jolly than it lets on

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 5:02pm

NOSELL

Netflix

The holidays aren’t always twinkle lights and chestnuts roasting over open fires. For some, it's a hard reminder of things lost. For others, it’s a difficult warning of what’s still around. Some of us are lucky enough to call someplace “home” when the snow falls and the bells come jingling. But even for the lucky ones, being home can be stressful.

Boyfriend and girlfriend Matt (Brent Morin, “How to Be Single”) and Emmy Quinn (Bridgit Mendler, “Good Luck Charlie”) travel from L.A. to Emmy’s native Philadelphia to spend the holidays with her family. There, Matt intends to make a good impression on the rest of the Quinns, but his plans get snuffed out early by Emmy’s patriarchal father Don (Dennis Quaid, “A Dog’s Journey”), a sheriff whose jurisdiction covers not just Philadelphia, but his entire family, too. Don’s a traditionalist, to say the least. He lives by a set of rules that he ensures his family follows to a tee. No drinking, Mass on Sundays and Christmas lights up for no more than 10 days “because it isn’t Las Vegas.” Naturally, there are complications this Christmas. Emmy’s sister Kayla (Ashley Tisdale, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”) is getting a divorce. Her other sister Patsy (Siobhan Murphy, “Schitts Creek”) is having trouble conceiving. Her brother Sean (Hayes MacArthur, “Super Troopers 2”) lost his job, and Don refuses to give Matt a chance. Just another Christmas as far as most of us are concerned.

If the plot sounds like it could border on the generic — perhaps even the conservative — you would be only half-right. There are moments in the first episode, and even the rest of the season, that champion traditionalism. These plaid-and-Carhartt-clad Quinns mean business. Men are men and ladies decorate the tree. Sure, it is a fish-out-of-water family plot. Yes, some of the jokes encroach on outdatedness. But I don’t think that “Merry Happy Whatever” gets at anything other than what it’s like to live in a traditional, blue-collar family. And that includes the bonds that ultimately come with this kind of family.

The first episode is not representative of the entire show. The traditions established early on quickly get ruptured, and not even by the newly arrived boyfriend. Being a family is difficult, and there are natural fissures that erupt in between traditions. Some family members struggle with trying to recognize their sexuality, others with new-fangled ideas of equality. Even Don, the center of their steady, cautious universe, is having difficulty pursuing a new romance after being widowed for the better part of his adult life.

Even the in-laws struggle. Expressing themselves and their opinions is a constant balancing act with managing to stay under Don’s radar. The best of them is absolutely Joy (Elizabeth Ho, “Disjointed”), whose wit and charm effectively even out the rest of the cast’s frantic attempts to restabilize their continually-swaying boat. An early interaction with an elderly lady that at first seems to be endearing quickly takes a sharp turn, but she handles it with a kind of confident, yet self-deprecating grace.

Some may be turned off by “Merry Happy Whatever,” and I understand that. A laugh-track was an interesting choice. In the end, it doesn’t really offer any answers or solutions. But there aren’t ever any satisfying conclusions to family trouble. We bumble our way through it. We say some things we probably shouldn’t say. In the end, those who love us forgive us, accept us and wake us up on Christmas Day by playing “Jingle Bell Rock” as loud as they can at 5 a.m. “Merry Happy Whatever” is about neither the “merry” nor the “happy.” It’s all about the “whatever” that we ultimately managed to get caught up in. It’s gross. It’s sweet. It’s just another Christmas, Hanukkah or December at home. It’s family.