Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah Bunting is a longtime fan of Dennis Quaid. In fact, she hosts Quaid in Full, a podcast dedicated to his, um, body of work. So when we heard Quaid was starring in Netflix's Merry Happy Whenever — his first sitcom role in a career that's spanned over forty years — we had to ask for her thoughts.
Merry Happy Whatever, the holiday comedy from Netflix that drops Thanksgiving Day is not for me, in almost any respect. There's a laugh track. There's a premise we might kindly call creaky: "Formidable law-enforcement dad juggles extended family and holiday stress while battling his youngest daughter's boyfriend for control of her heart." There are characters who address one another as "sis" and "son." And, most alienating to this particular correspondent, the suburban Philadelphia setting is only acknowledged once, by an Eagles mug from which Dennis Quaid drinks hot cider in a hospital waiting room.
And yet... there is also something compelling, something watchable about Merry Happy Whatever that overrides its strained family set-ups and moth-eaten one-liners. That something is Dennis Quaid.
The show has basically cast Dennis Quaid as himself. The character's name is... Don Quinn. At this point in Quaid's career, this is arguably what we tune into his projects for. Quaid's star power comes from his charisma, one specific to him, so the pleasure of watching him in Merry Happy Whatever isn't solely to see what he does with the role, although that's fun (his delivery of a threatening "We're delightful!" to a dissatisfied son-in-law is one of the few laughs in the premiere. Another is his disgusted glare when Matt (Undateable's Brent Morin) accidentally pops a staple into Don's forehead). It's what the role does with him... how the writing imagines not how this general situation might unfold, but how it might unfold with actual Dennis Quaid living as a suburban sheriff and a rigidly traditional widower. The framework is worn and formulaic, but you want to see what Quaid does within it, how he'll hit the beats you know are coming — and how Quaid-ily he'll do it.
Quaid has long had that Shatnerian quality — and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. He certainly isn't a bad actor, or one who substitutes volume for ability. But when you watch William Shatner in a project, you're always aware that it's Shatner, and that's the appeal. With Quaid it's kind of the same thing. Early in his career, in projects like Breaking Away and Are You In The House Alone? and even The Right Stuff, he blended into the material to a greater degree. He was cast in a wider range of guy roles: Fratty ladies men. Stalkers. Small-town boys searching for a bigger life.
By the mid-eighties, however, Quaid had arrived as we now understand him: a sometimes irascible, often jackass-y, always charming leading man the audience couldn't stay mad at any more than his onscreen love interests could. By the time Suspect came along (and aired a gazillion times on HBO in the late eighties), he'd stopped being merely an actor and become a movie star. We watched to see what Dennis Quaid specifically would do as a sleazy lobbyist turned nosy juror, or Doc Holliday, or an aging quarterback... or the father of Lindsay Lohan's scheming twins (the role that introduced him to a whole new generation of fans).
This is the enduring power of Dennis Quaid. It doesn't hurt that he's still fit at 65. It definitely doesn't hurt that he works constantly and is apparently up for anything. As the host of a podcast that's attempting to rate and review his entire filmed oeuvre, I'd actually like him to take some time off to plan his next wedding so I can catch up a little bit. But he stays busy, and casting him so often works, largely thanks to his unique presence. He's like the best parts of the family traditions from which Merry Happy Whatever struggles to wring laughs from: He's comforting, familiar, and someone you look forward to seeing year after year.
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Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.