Feel-good holiday tales are as time-honored a Christmas tradition as turkey on the table and presents under the tree.
From “Miracle on 34th Street” to “A Christmas Story,” they celebrate the soul of the season — the charity, the crackling fireplace, the chance to reconnect with relatives — tying everything together in a big, preferably red-and-green bow.
It’s all reliably heartwarming. According to Denis Leary, it’s also mostly “bull[expletive]."
“I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ every Christmas,” he adds. “I like to laugh. I’m more apt to watch ‘Die Hard.’ ”
“The Moodys" (premiering Dec. 4 on Fox) is the actor’s solution to saccharine holiday specials, an “anti-holidays” event series that centers on a dysfunctional family of five gathering to celebrate Christmas, each bearing his or her own combination of issues and irritations that threaten to send the season careening into a snow bank.
“It’s an example of how wrong the holidays can go,” explains Leary. The Worcester native stars as the family patriarch, tasked with appeasing his wife (Elizabeth Perkins), who’s hell-bent on a perfect Christmas, and not strangling his three adult children (Chelsea Frei, Jay Baruchel, and Francois Arnaud).
Leary, 62, actually refrains from swearing throughout this interview. That’s possibly a product of “The Moodys” airing on network television; it’s a tamer affair than the colorful comic’s R-rated “The Ref" (despite channeling that movie’s same anarchic spirit). But maybe he just got it all out on set, says Perkins.
“Denis’s way of greeting me in the morning was to say, ‘[Expletive] you, Perkins,’ ” says the actress, who was raised in the Berkshires town of Colrain. “And if you didn’t come from Massachusetts, you’d be like, ‘What is wrong with this person?’ Me, I just go, ‘[Expletive] you this morning too.’ ”
Across the three-night, six-episode series, the family spends Christmas on Chicago’s South Side. But with the exception of Canadian imports Baruchel and Arnaud, its stars are as Boston as the Bruins, bad weather, and dropping your 'r’s. Leary cut his teeth in Boston comedy clubs before becoming one of the city’s saltiest, most successful exports to Hollywood with the FX series “Rescue Me." Perkins, 58, appeared in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs" on Broadway before breaking into film and TV in “Big” and on Showtime’s “Weeds.”
Frei, meanwhile, was born and raised in Andover; she gained fame on Instagram for her endearing “Andover Mom” persona before getting cast in “The Moodys.” At 27, she’s the youngest Moody and says all the Mass. roots came in handy for bonding with her on-screen parents.
“Boston families are specific in more ways than one,” says Frei. “With Denis and Elizabeth, we just had so many references.” To play their overachieving daughter, Frei pulled from memories of being home for the holidays. “Everything I’ve built up about myself is stripped away, because my parents see right through it,” she says, laughing. “There’s this element of people getting really open in a way they aren’t the rest of the year.”
“The Moodys” wrapped production earlier this month. All three actors remember filming as a loose, improv-heavy experience. Leary would mischievously toss ad-libbed one-liners in Perkins’s direction, who’d gamely bat them toward Frei. Off camera, the showrunners would scribble down what they were hearing, running off to restructure scripts and sometimes invent entirely new scenes.
“As an actor, that’s what you dream about,” says Leary. “There are instances in almost every scene where they’d let people play.”
The strategic chaos brought everyone closer, adds Frei. “We became this real family, especially because we all had the same irreverent sense of humor.”
Even in her personal life, Perkins sometimes balks at the idea of spending Christmas with family. As a child, she was familiar with sibling rivalries spilling over by the tree. “All I wanted one year was the board game ‘Operation,’ ” she recalls. “My sibling got it, and I got a cloth doll with a plastic head, so I had to just perform surgery on that.”
Even now that she’s doing the Christmas shopping, not that much has changed. “There can be an argument between me and my sisters where I bring up that doll, 51 years later," she says, laughing. Still, Perkins says she’s similar to her “Moodys” character in terms of striving to be exceptionally merry each year.
“For me, Christmas is all about getting up in the morning, eating smoked salmon and turkey, laying around in your pajamas, and watching TV," she says. “That’s a perfect Christmas. But it never really works out like that, does it?”
Starring: Denis Leary, Elizabeth Perkins, Chelsea Frei, Jay Baruchel, Francois Arnaud. On Fox, premieres Dec. 4