ABC’s period comedy The Kids Are Alright will immediately call to mind the coming-of-age dramedy The Wonder Years, but as the charming but scattered premiere episode of the ‘70s family ensemble demonstrates, this series is more interested in chaotic laughs than milking nostalgia for all it’s worth. The cast is headed up by Walking Dead alum Michael Cudlitz and In Plain Sight star Mary McCormack as Mike and Peggy Cleary, parents to a seemingly endless brood of Irish-Catholic boys (there are eight of them in total) raging in age from early twenties to about a year or so. The enormous size of the family and the various dynamics created by that small but significant population coexisting under a single roof (and making ends meet with a single income) is the crux of the new series and the source of its humor.
Though ostensibly an ensemble, The Kids Are Alright is told (again, like The Wonder Years) in sort of a wistful refrain by a narrator, who also happens to be the adult version of Timmy Cleary (Jack Gore), a prototypical middle child through and through. Due to his relative invisibility among so many siblings, especially with his parents so close to realizing their dream of having a child enter the seminary with eldest son Lawrence (Sam Straley), Timmy embarks on a quest to be seen, by trying to literally put himself in the spotlight. The result is a good-natured comedy that finds function in an otherwise dysfunctional household, and gets decent laughs out of its working class setting without relying too heavily on clichés.
On of the ways the series aims to avoid the cliché trap is by centering its story on that of its narrator. Timmy’s dreams of stardom feel a little out of left field in the beginning, as he’s caught singing along to records instead of joining the rest of the family at the too small dinner table. As the episode unfolds, however, Timmy’s relative invisibility becomes his motivation. If he’s not going to get the attention he craves at home, he’ll go out and get it elsewhere. The effect is more than a little endearing and helps give the series a reason to look outside the chaos of the family for stories as well as laughs.
But that doesn’t mean The Kids Are Alright doesn’t lean into its conceit. The premiere is commendable for its efforts to draw a picture of each and every Cleary boy, even if some of them, like Frank (Sawyer Barth) or Pat (Santino Barnard), are mostly rough sketches of characters defined by either a predilection toward snitching or what amounts to hypochondria. There’s plenty of room for greater exploration of each character, and watching as the series makes use of its expansive ensemble could be reason enough for viewers to continue watching as the season progresses.
The premiere rightly focuses its efforts on Cudlitz and McCormack, while also paying particular attention to Lawrence as he wrestles with the second thoughts he’s having about the priesthood. This potential father-son conflict plays out in surprising fashion, with Mike taking the time out for a father-son conversation that is not only not condescending but it doesn’t play into the expectations of how a man like Mike would behave toward his child. Whereas something like, say, Netflix’s F Is For Family takes great pleasure in and gets big laughs from skewering the myopic worldview of its frustrated lead character, The Kids Are Alright instead delivers a surprisingly kinder, gentler, and more understanding father. The result makes Lawrence’s crisis of faith (for lack of a better term) far more interesting than if he were simply bristling against a tyrannical father (funny or not).
Similarly, McCormak’s Peggy largely manages her brood by taking a “no one is special” stance that is clearly meant to streamline a complicated and demanding job. But, just as Mike proved to have hidden layers, so too does Peggy, as she tracks Timmy down at an audition only to find herself with a better understanding of her son’s needs and soon finds herself not only accepting of his efforts toward individualism but in full support of them (he is, after all, just an understudy by the episode’s end).
The Kids Are Alright is literally dealing with a full house, and though some of the boys get short shrift in the first episode, there are nevertheless some standouts, like second oldest Eddie (Caleb Foote) and budding criminal Joey (Christopher Paul Richards). And although the pilot leaves something to be desired, and a greater sense of direction and purpose to be determined, the series proves a charm offensive can go a long way in getting the audience on board while the series works out its various kinks,
The Kids Are Alright continues next Tuesday with ‘Timmy’s Poem’ @8:30pm on ABC.