ÜberWeihnachten [Over Christmas], Season 1 (2020)

Over Christmas is a German dramedy miniseries streaming on Netflix. It's getting a little hard to tell, but I believe this was actually a Netflix production, rather than a series they picked up after the fact, though I suppose that's kind of academic, anyway. Supposedly, there's a second season in the works.

The story centers around Bastian, a former resident of a small German town who moved to Berlin after high school to pursue a career as a musician. To put it mildly, things haven't been going well - he's still pining over a breakup the year before, he's working in a call center, and his auditions haven't been going well. But despite everything, he's excited to return home for Christmas. So you already know that's going to go poorly.

Really poorly, in fact, beginning with the rather abrupt discovery the ex he's pining over shows up to spend Christmas as his brother's guest. Bastian then hooks up with one of his brother's exes, he and his brother steal a tree from the local church, and he discovers his father is terminally ill. And through it all, Bastian behaves badly. The idea is he's sort of a petulant man-child who needs to grow up, a lesson he eventually takes to heart after spilling the entire town's secrets during a Christmas fair. And, to be clear, he outs a close friend for being gay, makes his dad's illness public, and admits to taking the tree, among other things. By this point, we're most of the way through the third episode, so we race through him realizing the error of his ways and easily making amends through quick apologies and run-of-the-mill symbolic gestures.

It's a pretty simple story, at least in outline, but the driving force is character relationships not plot, so that's not really a problem. As for the tone...

Okay, here's where things get complicated. Overall, this didn't really work for me, and the primary reason was the uneven feel I got from the tone. That said, I'm not sure it's fair to label this as "bad," because I'm not entirely certain the issue stems from the show as opposed to the act of translation.

This feels a bit all over the place - it swerves from over-the-top comic relief to drama constantly. But I'm not sure the drama is actually quite as dramatic as it feels to me. There's absolutely a chance these bits play as satire or even dark comedy to German audiences, and I'm just missing the subtle humor. I also don't really know enough about the cinematic tradition or landscape this is coming out of - I'm conditioned to interpret shifting tones as lazy writing, but that's far from universal across cultures.

What I think I can say is, to an English speaker watching in translation, the tonal shifts feel unbalanced and distancing. The premise requires these characters to make some pretty awful decisions. Bastian's reactions are of course the primary example, but... like... his brother shows up to Christmas with his ex. That's pretty horrendous on the part of the brother, the ex, and even Bastian's mother, who we learn insisted on the ex's presence. The scenario is completely absurd, which works as a comedy, but - at least as far as I can tell - the situation is played fairly straight. It's used as a catalyst to justify some extreme behavior later, but the basic setup isn't treated as all that funny, a fact that undermines the notion we're supposed to understand why Bastian's reactions have consequences. I feel like there's a weird disconnect here - the world just doesn't seem to be consistent or have rules. As a result, I'm left not really believing in or liking these people.

Though, again, the actors mitigate this quite a bit. The lead, in particular, comes off as affable enough I was willing to overlook a lot of my issues with the tone. Likewise, this manages a decent number of funny moments, as well as some fun visuals, such as Bastian's guitar being animated in his hands during a scene when he and his new girlfriend are imagining him playing. There's good stuff here, there just wasn't enough to overcome its shortcomings and elevate this above "fine."

Your mileage may vary, however, depending on how well you connect with these characters, and certainly with your background with the culture. I will say I always enjoy seeing other countries' Christmas media, as it provides a glimpse into how they perceive the holidays. In this case, you get a feeling for how the holidays are simultaneously intended for families but also for drinking and partying. Hedonistic aspects of Christmas aren't entirely absent from American traditions, but the casual transition from time with the family to heavy drinking is a good reminder that not every country was founded by Puritans who attempted to strip the fun out of the season.