As much mileage as one can get out of the concept that TV is basically creating episodic movies now, it’s still important to choose between creating one or the other. Plenty of movies are so dense that they’d make even better television shows, just as plenty of television shows are so bereft of compelling material (or fail to properly execute that material) that they would’ve been better condensed into a tight 90 minutes instead. The Moodys falls into the latter category, though it’s not necessarily safe to say that its issues are due to being bereft of compelling material; instead, the series appears to be withholding that material until it gets the green light to go beyond its limited Christmas run. Which is Fox’s intent with this adaptation, but doesn’t necessarily make for the most entertaining—or even complete—Christmas event series experience it’s been billed as.
Despite being a remake of an Australian TV series, The Moodys might actually function better as a TV movie than as a three-night, six-episode (with the last four episodes airing on December 9 and 10, days after the December 4 premiere date) event series. In its current form, The Moodys struggles with pacing and character issues, as well as a story that doesn’t really add much to the holiday season pop-culture conversation that hasn’t already been said in The Family Stone or Love The Coopers, right down to the family secret the parents are trying to hide through the holidays and an insufferable “love” story that the audience has no reason to root for at all. As a TV movie, The Moodys wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel, but it would easily be a cut above the seasonal go-tos on the Hallmark and Lifetime channels.
But The Moodys is not a TV movie, and so it struggles to truly play to the strengths that it has. In fact, all six episodes function more like a strange experiment in accentuating a project’s flaws, despite a solid cast and writers who know how to work with said cast. Written by Bob Fisher (Sirens, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll), Rob Greenberg (Frasier), and Tad Quill (Bent, The Odd Couple), The Moodys is instantly able to do a lot of heavy lifting simply with the casting of Denis Leary and Elizabeth Perkins as Sean Sr. and Ann, the parental units of the Moody family in Chicago. Even if you’re not a fan of Leary’s schtick—and Bob Fisher is quite familiar with it—The Moodys makes it palatable by leaning into his gruffness without making him a straight-up asshole. Like Perkins, he’s also able to pull off the one-on-one heart-to-heart scenes with their children—Sean Jr. (Jay Baruchel), Bridget (Chelsea Frei), and Dan (François Arnaud). At the same time, the moments when Sean Sr. takes people aside to rant at them in hushed tones is just the jolt of energy the otherwise lethargic Moodys desperately needs.
There’s a scene in The Moodys where Sean Sr. tells the children that they need to give their mother the perfect Christmas—which, based on the trailers, seems like it should be the baseline for the series, but it’s strangely not. Tonally, it’s not exactly clear what The Moodys wants to be. Similarly to how it’s being promoted—as though it’s been a regular holiday fixture for years—The Moodys plays out as though the audience should have an established familiarity with these characters, even though they don’t. Instead of feeling lived-in, it seems rushed, to the point where it’s difficult to really care about these characters and their issues. That’s less of the case for Leary and Perkins, who are easily the highlights of the series and the easiest to pin down simply because of the years of experience (and character types) these veteran actors have under their belts. Baruchel is similarly successful in his role; Sean Jr. works because of the aforementioned character growth. Frei as middle child Bridget has the cheat code of being the sibling character who is concerned with living up to the “perfect” standard she set growing up, something the audience is reminded of often. That’s a trope everyone can at least latch onto quickly, even if there’s no real emotional resonance with the character.
When Deadline announced that A Moody Christmas was being remade for American audiences, it noted, “A Moody Christmas tells the story of a young man who was smart enough to leave his family behind and dumb enough to come back again.” That is not the impression anyone would have while watching this particular version of the series, as Arrested Development, Fox’s The Moodys is not. In The Moodys, Dan, the “young man” in question, is not only no better than his family—who, unlike in the original series, aren’t even particular wacky or even dysfunctional, as billed—he’s actively the worst character on the show.
Arnaud has the unenviable task of playing the straight man and surrogate for the audience, despite Dan easily being the most uninteresting and unlikable member of the entire family. As in the original series, he finds himself heartbroken and then, just as quickly, infatuated with someone who’s already in a relationship. Compare that to Sean Jr., whose state of arrested development works hard to give Dan the leg-up over him, but that arc fails due to Baruchel’s earnest portrayal of the character and growth throughout the season. Dan has no such growth. The series outright acknowledges that Dan is peak “Nice Guy,” and with every shitty action he makes, one begs for the series to subvert rom-com expectations with this character.
But it never does. Instead, the series wants the audience to feel bad for Dan—like his siblings and parents do—despite this tired rom-com trope lacking the one thing that would least defend it on some level: chemistry between Arnaud and Cora, the object of his affection, played by Maria Gabriela de Faria. There is a meet-cute and also plenty of pining (and discussion about pining), but there’s no heat between the two characters, just what’s written on the page. Dan isn’t written as a Michael Bluth, who is just as much the butt of the joke as the rest of the family, nor is he written as a Ted Mosby, who is so overcome by his need to romanticize everything that he blows everything up. He’s written as an attractive guy who likes an attractive girl, almost immediately after getting out of a relationship with another attractive girl. (And Ann’s armchair psychoanalyzing of Dan and his behavior is dismissed as her just being a nagging mother.) It doesn’t help that Arnaud is predominantly a dramatic actor, making his casting the most baffling choice of all, despite his appearance in the unaired French-Canadian sitcom Taxi-022 (the American remake of which was co-written by Moodys scribe Tad Quill).
Then again, it’s understandable to wonder if The Moodys is even supposed to be a comedy and not just a drama with vague comedic elements. The series features clearly comedic beats and lines that are supposed to be humorous, but nothing that earns a real laugh out loud. Despite the framing device of the week around Christmas, things don’t ramp up the way one would expect, especially after the opening in media res scene—which is a cheat here, as this moment is the highest octane the series ever gets… and it’s still at about a four out of 10. The low-key energy works for Bridget and her own more successful rom-com storyline with Monty (Sirens’ Kevin Bigley), but a lot of that comes down to Monty being one of the funniest and most fully drawn characters of the entire piece. Which is great for Monty, but underscores weaker characterization elsewhere in the series, especially for characters like Cora and Bridget’s severely underwritten husband Doug.
In a way, it’s actually impressive that Fox, which seems to have veered toward broader programming as a path into the television future, has gone with the old school approach to television pilots with The Moodys. But there’s not much to take away from this six-episode run other than its obvious goal to sell the audience on The Moodys as a full-blown series—in order to get satisfying conclusions to literally every storyline in the season. A minor plot point creates a reason for The Moodys to return as soon as June—which just isn’t how television is done these days, save for the rare TV movie that serves as a backdoor pilot. Which reminds us that The Moodys would’ve functioned better as a TV movie, tightening up the meandering moments and telling a singular, complete story. Still, The Moodys makes a perfectly serviceable series to keep on in the background during the holidays.