Imagine a crossover between Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and Fleabag (2016–2019). The opulence of the Mehras and the chaos of Claire and her sister all at once with both the families together at a wedding, and later at a funeral. In one plot.
Zoom out, I’m about to give you scoopful on this crossover being a reality in the form of Netflix’s sleeper holiday hit series: How To Ruin Christmas. A South African Original on the platform, it’s surprising I missed this for a whole year before stumbling on this by chance. I would have taken this for another standard Christmas run-of-the-mill bullshit if the short runtime (two seasons, over seven episodes) hadn’t convinced me to check out the pilot. I was looking for a respite from all things love and mush around Christmas and definitely didn’t want to invest any more than a weekend on a series with something different. Different is what I got with sunny Christmases, filled with wedding and funeral prep, braai that made me hungry, and the chaos that someone else was responsible for, just once. How To Ruin Christmas gave all and gave well.
We have more in common with South Africa than we know. The mothers-in-law are difficult, the sons are tied to their moms’ apron strings and the daughters are rebels who stand for each other despite all the in-fighting and nonsense while the extended family is a shitshow all across. To watch two families bicker among and with each other over the course of two seasons including a wedding and a funeral was an oddly comforting sight. Contrary to what the Barjatyas and the Chopras insist on showcasing, saccharine-dipped relationships nurturing on respect and boundaries within the Indian culture are usually idealistic, even among happier, stable families. Most of us, whether we come from happy homes or not, have complex family dynamics and difficult relationships with other family units and even among the members of our own family. To see it pan out, in a different continent, with a completely different socio-political context and yet appear to be relatable and comforting was definitely a refreshing change from watching a tone-deaf white family drama where the biggest problem is the son being caught catfishing during the family holiday. I’m looking at you Catfished on Christmas special.
Tumi Sello (Busisiwe Lurayi), the black sheep of her family is headed to town to attend her sister Beauty’s (Thando Thabethe) wedding on Christmas day with the Twala scion Sbu (Vincent Mahlangu), younger son of a loaded politician Vusi Twala (Lehlohonolo Saint Seseli) and his overbearing wife Valencia (Charmaine Mtinta) with a penchant for designer goods. Over three episodes, not only does Tumi royally screw the wedding and the celebrations, but she screws a bunch of others. Her relationship with her mother Dineo (Clementine Mosimane) is tested as the Sello sisters stumble upon a secret that their mother kept away from them. The effects of this revelation and other secrets all come out in the open and affect the wedding. Season one (Wedding) features sub-plots on the difficult mother-daughter relationships, evil moms-in-law, the class divide between families during marriages, loony extended family, and the difficulty of coming out to your family when you come from a god-fearing traditional background.
The second season takes both the families to the demise of a family member, and somehow Tumi finds herself embroiled in that death, despite not playing an active role in it. Over the course of the year from last Christmas’ disaster at her sister’s wedding, she barely finds acceptance with the families before messing up again and then some more. She calls herself “toxic” and is self-aware to distance herself from any possible wrongdoing that she could potentially be responsible for in the future and yet, the domino effect continues, with chips all falling down on her including her own relationship with her partner and the Sellos’ relationship at large with the Twalas. Grief and loss is the theme across season 2 and each time the subject is talked about, it has been dealt with a certain sensitivity, which most comedy originals of this nature usually tend to lack. Directors Johnny Barbuzano, Katleho Ramaphakela and Rethabile Ramaphakela managed to create something worth remembering in the second season despite dealing with a difficult subject around comedy and individual plots.
One has to appreciate the writing craft in the series, to be able to narrate these stories and sub-plots with a careful measure of not under or overwriting any character and their arc compared to the others. It’s rare for family dramas to do justice to most characters and to me, I found myself enjoying each character just as much, a rare occurrence. Highlights include Sbu’s calm demeanour to handle shit flinging at him from all directions, Uncle Shadrack’s (Desmond Dube) ability to not give a fuck and his comedy timing, and Valencia, the mother-in-law everyone loved to hate.
The chemistry between Tumi and Khaya (Yonda Thomas) is the stuff of writers’ (wet) dream to take on the screen, the writing corresponded with the acting just as much. For real, the priest in Fleabag walked so Khaya could run and chase Tumi out of her insecurities each time she fell back and wondered what is she doing. It’s also positively warm to watch a male character stripped off the toxicity, despite dealing with a difficult person. Men like that don’t come easy and they should be appreciated, whether in life or fiction. Tip of the hat to the writing team across the board for nailing the comedy with grit and conviction and for the actors to be able to deliver.
We don’t have to visit South Africa to feel that we live the same lives as Twalas and Sellos. It was a delight to see tight-knit families juggling hard to balance the scale between retaining the traditional and yet embracing modernity. The Twalas and the Sellos could be a story you know from your friend circle or your family; the new daughter-in-law and her family being tested at every step by the demanding and difficult family of the lovely guy she’s married, the girl’s side defending their family despite internally pointing fingers at each other including how they conduct themselves in their personal lives. Watching How To Ruin Christmas felt like attending a close friend’s wedding at a fancy farmhouse in Chhatarpur, with a guy’s family going bonkers trying to show off their wealth and the girl’s family trying way too hard for everyone to accept them in their world. A Delhi wedding is usually marked with an upset mother-in-law who surfaces from pent-up anger at the bride’s tribe on the penultimate function and a fight ensues between all important members of both families causing internal drama. Nobody wants it, but it happens, almost always.
Without giving out spoilers that will take away from the allure of watching your first South African drama, you can expect a riot and distraction from the situation of gloom and doom outside (depending on which part of the world you are currently in. It’s all the same, anyway).
I’d recommend watching it this weekend and maximizing your time indoors cause Covid shitshow is trying to outdo its last big gig and truly, I won’t mind watching others enjoy a holiday as long as I’m safely tucked in at home. Last Christmas I gave Johanne my heart, but the very next year I gave it to Tumi. You should do the same.
The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.