‘Merry, Happy, Whatever’ (Netflix, 2019) Review

When I first saw the trailer for Netflix’s new sitcom Merry, Happy, Whatever I was so excited. It combined all my favorite things Christmas, sitcoms, and Ashley Tisdale together. What could be better?

The show, which was created by Tucker Cawley, follows the Quinn family as they get ready to spend the next 10 days celebrating a perfect holiday season in true Quinn family fashion. Of course, perfection and the holidays don’t exist and the Quinn’s quickly learn that family traditions can be hard to keep up when families are constantly evolving.

Don Quinn (played by Dennis Quaid) is the widowed, no-nonsense patriarch of the family. The most shocking thing about him is that he forms a crush on an emergency room nurse who happens to be black. It’s 2019 and interracial relationships shouldn’t be shocking but if you’ve watched the show you’d agree that it was a pretty surprising relationship to explore given Don’s conservative beliefs.

Don has four kids — 3 daughters and a son. Patsy (Siobham Murphy) is the eldest daughter who feels it is her responsibility to be the “mom” of the family since their own mother has passed away. That’s literally her whole purpose of being in the show and it gets old, fast. Kayla (Ashley Tisdale) is the middle daughter who learns her husband wants a divorce the moment they enter her childhood home. Sean (Hayes MacArthur) is Don’s only son who just so happens to be hiding a secret from his father — well, a secret or two. And then there is Emmy (Bridgit Mendler), Don’s youngest daughter and quite possibly his favorite child. Emmy has come back from LA to celebrate the holidays with her family and she’s brought along her struggling musician boyfriend Matt (Brent Morin) who Don is not too thrilled about.

In addition to the family, there are the two in-laws or “outlaws” as they call themselves, Todd (Adam Rose) who is married to Patsy and Joy (Elizabeth Ho) who is married to Sean. There are also a few grandkids in the mix rounding out the Quinn family.

With so many people together during a stressful time, chaos is bound to ensue and it sure does. Just like the Quinn’s rocky holiday celebration, Merry, Happy, Whatever faces a rollercoaster of good and bad episodes.

Without further ado, here’s my review of Merry, Happy, Whatever.

Spoilers ahead.

* * *

Favorite Episode: Episode 4 – “Happy Mall-idays”

“Happy Mall-idays” is the episode that finally intrigued me enough to sit down and binge-watch the rest of the show. I was ready to give up after the first two episodes, the third was a little bit better but the fourth episode is where I finally started to connect with the characters.

The fourth episode follows the Quinns as they brace the holiday crowds at the mall to complete a multitude of tasks. Don is looking for the perfect gift for Nancy and enlists Sean to help him out. Emmy and Matt are faced with their first argument of the holiday season as they disagree on how to spend money. Meanwhile, Joy ends up crashing her car while trying to find parking space which means Patsy and Todd must wait in the Santa line until Joy can get the car situation under control. Oh, and then there’s Kayla who spends the entire time trying to hit on the cute barista she’s been secretly crushing on.

Pretty standard for a sitcom and yet, this is where the characters start to shine. I felt myself cringing along with Kayla as she tried to win over the barista who just thought she was interested in a job and not her. Matt and Emmy’s debate over how they spend money was relatable — especially when the conversation centered around how much was appropriate to spend on a Christmas gift. And I was really loving Joy’s heart-to-heart with the elderly woman whose car she hit until the woman said that. You’ll know what I mean when you watch it.

From episode 4 on it finally feels like we are apart of the Quinn family and not just some uninvited visitor.

Least Favorite Episode: Episode 1 – “Welcome Matt”

It’s a well-known fact in the television world that pilots usually aren’t that great. Merry, Happy, Whatever’s pilot episode is no exception to that fact. The episode is terrible and that’s putting it lightly. It’s a miracle I kept watching the show after that episode but I try to give every show at least 3 chances before calling it quits.

The plot of the episode goes like this: Don picks up his beloved daughter and her struggling musician boyfriend at the airport in his police cruiser. Matt hopes to make a good impression with the Quinn’s but his presence is quickly outshined when Kayla’s husband announces that he wants a divorce in front of the entire family. The writing staff was smart to include the standard “how could you do this in front of my entire family/everything we do is in front of your family” joke. From there chaos ensues as more secrets are revealed to certain characters setting up the promise of chaos to come.

The issue with “Welcome, Matt” is that it relies on sitcom gimmicks as a crutch. The plot isn’t fresh and neither are the characters who rely on sitcom troupes way too much. It’s a shame considering the premise of the show has so much potential and could really elevate Netflix’s original sitcom repertoire.

Favorite Character: Kayla Quinn

Kayla Quinn saved Merry, Happy, Whatever for me.

In the beginning, I was disappointed in Kayla’s character. Ashely Tisdale is such an amazing actress and it felt like she was playing a character I had already seen her portray (you can’t deny the Sharpey vibes). Thankfully, the third episode gives Kayla some depth when she confides in Matt about her feelings towards women.

Netflix isn’t a stranger to exploring LGBT character’s but Kayla’s revelation is really one of the first times I’ve seen a grown adult question their sexuality on television. We talk a lot about how important it is for younger generations to see themselves represented in media but it’s also important for older generations to see themselves represented as well. Kayla does that from them.

Here is a character who has been in a marriage that isn’t bringing either partner happiness but it’s what they’re “supposed” to do. When Kayla finds out her husband wants a divorce she’s sad at first but then she feels free. Free because she doesn’t have to hide behind a lie anymore — except, for the fact that her father is ultra-conservative and she’s not sure if he’ll accept her. Which, spoiler alert, he eventually does thank goodness.

So yeah, Kayla redeemed the show for me and she also has the plot that I was most invested in, making her my favorite character.

Least Favorite Character: Patsy Quinn

I physically groaned in annoyance every time Patsy was on the screen. Now that’s not to say Siobham Murphy’s performance was horrible because it was not (remember actors are not their characters), her character just had the worst plot and traits of the ensemble.

Patsy is a character reminiscent of the traditional “sitcom wife,” which, okay would have been fine except she wasn’t Don’s wife! It seems silly for the writers to decide to not have the wife/mom be alive and yet have this character do exactly what is expected of a wife/mom.

Listen, I get what the show was getting at. There is this perception that if a mother passes away the daughter should step into that role and help the family out. I’m not totally opposed to the show exploring that dynamic, however, it didn’t feel like a daughter stepping into her mother’s shoes. It felt like she was the damn mother and it was weird!

Patsy’s character is stereotypical and annoying when she could have been so much more. Underneath all that “sitcom wife” nonsense is a character who desperately wants to be a mother to her own children but is struggling to get pregnant. I would have loved to see the idea that Patsy mothered her siblings and father because she can’t mother her own children explored more. Instead, her role is there to provide laughs and be the kitchy sister.

If this show gets a second season I hope Patsy gets the justice she deserves.

Complaints:

One thing that struck me as interesting was the fact that the show never ventured into the world of politics despite its ability to do so. Yes, this is a holiday event sitcom that released on Thanksgiving in the hopes of bringing families together for co-viewing but then again, it’s family and holiday-themed and politics usually always find a way to be discussed. Instead, the show focuses its debates on sexist viewpoints (“are you the lady CEO of your job yet”) and religious differences (Catholic traditions vs Jewish traditions). It works for the contents of the show but it would have been interesting to see politics come into play somewhere. Let’s face it Don is a total Republican and Matt is not.

Speaking of Matt, though I did like his character, I couldn’t help but feel like he was a knock off version of Nick Miller from New Girl. I mean come on, Matt and Nick have a lot in common. They’re both dating women with successful careers, they both have no idea what they’re doing with their lives, and they’re both a little nerdy and awkward. Not to mention the actors kinda look similar. I would have liked to see Matt stand out more since he is the show’s main antagonist.

Another complaint of mine was how the show centered around this premise that Quinn’s follow tradition and that Don never breaks those traditions only to have him break these traditions three episodes in! And he doesn’t even feel guilty about it at first! It all just felt very out of place for me.

My biggest complaint comes from the pilot episode when Sean and Joy’s eldest son announces to his parents that he is an atheist. Now it’s not the announcement that bugged me, it’s the fact that they made it seem like the son was going to have his “coming out” talk with his parents and instead chose to divert from that to which the parents’ response was a sigh of relief. It seems odd and out of place for the show to laugh at or feel relief that this wasn’t a coming-out moment since the show eventually explores a true coming-out moment. I don’t know, I just hate when scary and heartfelt situations are played for laughs.

My one final complaint about Merry, Happy, Whatever is that it played it safe for a Netflix sitcom. Yes, multi-cams are more lighthearted than other forms of television but even Netflix’s One Day At A Time found a way to tackle heavy topics in a comedic way. Merry, Happy, Whatever felt very safe and very conservative. In fact, it could have aired on CBS and fit right in with their line up of multi-cam sitcoms.

Praise:

As I’ve said above, I love sitcoms and I love Christmas so the fact that Merry, Happy, Whatever is a combination of both is amazing. Do I wish it was better? Yes. Ultimately though, I did love the premise. I thought it was fun and had a lot of potential to be great and different. Netflix was wise in creating an event-based sitcom because it’s something that traditional broadcast sitcoms simply cannot do.

I did enjoy that we got to see Todd rival Don in a Jewish vs. Catholic tradition debate. Could it have gone deeper? Of course! But I think the way it was done was perfect for the tone of this show. I find that we often overlook other culture’s holiday’s because they aren’t popular with the masses and that’s not okay. I’m glad Todd got his point across to the Quinn’s. Hopefully, if we see the Quinn’s again during the winter holidays we get to see them explore Todd’s Hanukkah traditions.

By far my favorite thing about Merry, Happy, Whatever, was the bond between the “Outlaws.” It’s funny since I didn’t name any of them my favorite character but truthfully their scenes together were my favorite ones to watch. The idea of in-laws feeling unwelcomed and out-of-place isn’t something that’s talked about much and I liked that Merry, Happy, Whatever chose to go there. What I really loved though was that the outlaws bonded over their crazy extended family instead of choosing not to interact with one another. Watching Joy and Todd take Matt under their wing was heartfelt and hilarious. It’s definitely the highlight of the show for me and will be the reason this show stands out in my mind years from now.

* * *

Overall, Merry, Happy, Whatever ended up being cute and entertaining. It was a bumpy ride but it was certainly worth it if you love the holidays and quirky multi-cam sitcoms. Is it for everyone? Definitely not. But is a nice escape from your own holiday family drama.

It’ll be interesting to see if Netflix decides to pick the show up for another season and if it does, what the season will revolve around. The creator hopes the show can serve as a “potential anthology series with future seasons exploring other holidays,” hence the name Merry, Happy, Whatever. Only time will tell.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Merry, Happy, Whatever is streaming now on Netflix.

Featured Image Source: Netflix.

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