7:00am PT by Tim Goodman
Hidden Gems: 'Moone Boy,' an Irish Coming-of-Age Charmer
In 2013 the comedy landscape on TV was as robust as ever, with 30 Rock, Veep, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Girls, Bob's Burgers, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Key & Peele, Portlandia, Archer, etc. So many great choices.
It was the summer of that year and a little thing known as Netflix was barely starting to flex its muscles on original content — and a little older entity, but still a new player to originals, Hulu, was up and running. Outside of network shows (don't call them reruns), not many people knew what was going on with Hulu, which less than a year earlier debuted its first scripted drama.
So, yeah, it was early days in the streaming revolution we all take for granted now.
But Hulu had acquired an offbeat coming-of-age series out of Ireland called Moone Boy, which almost nobody had heard of — including myself — and it was rattling around in the places on Hulu where almost nobody ventured because they were primarily there for whatever American TV series they missed last week.
I was floored, though. Moone Boy wasn't just funny and charming; it was fully formed and immediately great. That kind of floored. I posted a review a week or so after it aired and, while at the annual summer Television Critics Association press tour, started running into executives (mostly what I do there) and got asked, each time, what I was watching that I was keen on. Netflix had just two months earlier launched (and revived) Arrested Development, one of my all-time favorite comedies. Talking to Netflix's visionary Ted Sarandos, the "what are you watching" question came up. Very enthusiastically I told him that, by far, the best thing I'd seen on TV was Moone Boy on Hulu. And yes, I told the head of Netflix that he should watch Hulu.
Not long after, I came across John Landgraf of FX, another of my favorite executives and a guy who had three of my favorite comedies on the air —It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer and Wilfred. (I realize now that Wilfred will absolutely qualify as one of these Hidden Gems.) Anyway, I couldn't shut up about Moone Boy to Landgraf and said he should go home and watch it later.
At the end of the year Moone Boy ranked as my No. 1 best of 2013 comedy for The Hollywood Reporter. It's the perfect Hidden Gem.
Created by the brilliant Chris O'Dowd and co-written with his writing partner Nick Vincent Murphy, Moone Boy stars O'Dowd, all 6'3" of him, as the imaginary friend of a 12-year-old boy named Martin Moone (the wonderful and essential David Rawle). As O'Dowd's voiceover explains in the titles, perfectly summing up the series: "Ever wanted to be the imaginary friend of an idiot boy in the west of Ireland? Me neither. But there you go."
I would argue that the seed for so many of the incessantly funny and spot-on moments in this series, which lasted three seasons, started right there. It was so obvious.
Coming-of-age series can default too often to schmaltzy and saccharine but there's no need for worry about that in Moone Boy, which manages its sweetness and charms through a thicket of sharp hilarity. It's bittersweet but never dour, so that when you do arrive at, say, a seminal moment in Martin's development, the good feelings it generates are well earned (and you might still be laughing on arrival).
For example, in the first season (set in 1989 — this is all O'Dowd's coming-of-age stories, really), Martin is being constantly harassed and tormented by the Bonner boys (named Jonner and Conner, because of course), since, well, Martin is a really easy target with his quirks. He ends up temporarily shifting the Bonner boys onto new student Trevor. While this gives him a reprieve, it also makes him feel guilty. O'Dowd, as his imaginary friend (who later gets a name: Sean "Caution" Murphy), tells him not to worry about it: "It's really Trevor's fault for being new."
At almost every turn, Moone Boy connects on multiple levels.
Covering three seasons that are all available right now on Hulu, Moone Boy is particularly evocative and funny in season one if for nothing else because Martin, an eccentric old-soul of a kid, remains relentlessly upbeat when life (or his sisters) is beating him down. The infectious enthusiasm for discovering the world is spot-on 12-year-old stuff, with O'Dowd as the imaginary friend there all the while to offer life advice, much of it either bad or tangential. Many of the biggest laughs I got from the series came from O'Dowd's asides. It helps that Martin, despite his optimism, is not the world's brightest boy.
The series does a fine job developing other characters, including Martin's parents, Liam (Peter McDonald) and Debra (Deirdre O'Kane), and his three sisters, Fidelma (Clare Monnelly), Sinead (Sarah White) and Trisha (Aoife Duffin), who all have limits on how much quirkiness they will tolerate from their younger brother. While Liam always seems to have grand plans, everyone else realizes they might not be so grand and rebuff his innate carpe diem tendencies, which leads to often humorous frustrations but never a loss of hope, which has clearly been passed down to Martin.
There's obviously some Ireland-centric humor here but it all translates. And the creativity that Moone Boy resonates with is, unsurprisingly, upbeat and different, with flashes of animation, nostalgia, a killer soundtrack and a flurry of jokes that come from countless fonts, like O'Dowd's narration: "The boring old summer holidays were finally over, and the dull, damp autumn had arrived at last, bringing with it that sweet-smelling slanty-rain, enchanting early evenings and endless darkness." Or from lines that fly by you as they move onto something else: "Church is no place for imaginary friends." Or from an endless array of visual jokes, not the least being O'Dowd dressed exactly like the much smaller Martin.
The series is also successful at growing, as young star Rawle grew a bit and thinned out and naturally had to get, as his character, a bit less dim and a bit worldlier, even though much of the worldliness was fake and less dim never meant exceptionally bright. Though the series doesn't have to shift much (basically '89 to '92), it addresses things like, perhaps, there being less of a need for imaginary friends as we grow older (one episode with the "imaginaries" is fantastic and the series finale has Granddad Moone going senile and seeing his imaginary friend, a foul-mouthed George Gershwin — played by Paul Rudd — reappear).
Again — funny, touching, creative and just wonderful to watch. The episodes on Hulu are all roughly a half-hour and fly by. The entirety of the series goes too fast as well. It's easy to get attached to the Moone family, to Sean "Caution" Murphy and to Boyle, Ireland itself; it's not easy to part with them. On the plus side, you've got three seasons just waiting to discover.