'The Kids Are Alright': TV Review

A strong early effort.
10/16/2018

ABC may have another decade-specific gem as creator Tim Doyle tackles surviving a sprawling family in the 1970s.

ABC has already struck gold with two decade-based family sitcoms that combine searing snark about the generation with just enough sweetness to offset too much bleakness, so it made the smart decision to go with a third — the 1970s-set The Kids Are Alright, which premieres Tuesday.

It wasn't a slam dunk that The Goldbergs ('80s) and Fresh Off the Boat ('90s) were going to work after watching just a couple of episodes, but the DNA for success was there, as it is after seeing a couple of episodes of this series from creator and writer Tim Doyle, who based The Kids Are Alright on his own childhood.

Set in a suburb outside of Los Angeles and focusing on the Cleary family, featuring eight Irish Catholic boys parented by Mike (Michael Cudlitz) and Peggy (Mary McCormack) Cleary, The Kids Are Alright, like virtually any single-camera family based comedy, will have echoes of The Wonder Years, Malcolm in the Middle and on up through Modern Family — all positives, by the way — and this one is no different. Doyle himself narrates the series as the grown-up version of Timmy Cleary, looking back on those sunny 1970s that left an indelible mark on one middle child trying to muck through his coming-of-age years.

The Kids Are Alright perfectly encapsulates what viewers will see as the pilot opens on a montage of fuzzy, less-than-saturated Polaroid-like colors and scenes with this introduction: "I turned 12 in the summer of 1972. It was an awesome time to be a kid. It was the Wild West. Bike helmets hadn't been invented. Or car seatbelts. Or nutrition. Or even normal adult supervision."

Doyle's comedy-infused recollections stem from a loving but financially strapped family that had one kid in college and one baby, with six others in between, basically wrestling each other or trying not to get noticed or in trouble. They all tried to manage the emotional whims of a mother who was practical to a fault and a father who was stubborn and tough but perhaps, eight kids into it, was starting to show a modicum of flexibility and actual growth.

McCormack gets a lot of the better early lines as she tries to keep a tight lid on the chaos. Timmy (Jack Gore) wants to audition for a children's play but his plans are derailed as third brother Frank (Sawyer Barth), the eavesdropping house narc, tells mom about the plan, and fourth brother Joey (Christopher Paul Richards), the conscience-free budding troublemaker, steals his money. Plus, as mom says, "We don't have the wherewithal for any of you kids in this family to be special."

It echoes the same sentiment she shares with youngest child Pat (Santino Barnard), the meek, sickly, easily frightened one who worries he has asthma: "We can't afford asthma. That's just smog. Go back outside and play."

McCormack is perfectly cast and it's refreshing to see Cudlitz, so talented in everything from Southland to The Walking Dead, lean into the working-class dad role without borrowing from cliches of previous series. He, too, is given a number of blunt, of-the-era thoughts on life. Like when eldest son Lawrence (Sam Straley), who just announced he's dropping out of seminary school to find himself and be enlightened, grouses that his dad bought grapes and lettuce that are the subject of a high-profile protest: "The migrant workers are picking this stuff for mere pennies an hour." To which Mike responds, "I guess that's why it's so cheap. Let's hope the bacon workers strike next."

Doyle and The Kids Are Alright, at least in the early going, are using Cudlitz as the one who ends up trying to listen to the changing times despite being stubborn — it's an interesting and refreshing change from always having the dad be the unbending, clueless hammer and the mom be the voice of reason. Mike buys the aforementioned lettuce and grapes in the first place only because he listened to Lawrence complain about their processed food and lack of vegetables. 

While there's a lot to be excited about in the first couple of episodes, not everything works perfectly. Discussing allegations against Nixon, Mike tells the family over the dinner table, "that's phony news," a nod to the present the series is better off avoiding entirely. And Joey, the troublemaker, is a little too over the top in his persona and drops the term "chill pill" probably a decade or more before it popped up in the vernacular. But early modifications to sitcoms are part of the deal and Doyle and the writers have done a fine job, in the two episodes reviewed, of almost immediately giving every character in this sprawling ensemble an identity, which is no easy feat.

Gore, of course, will be asked to carry a pretty big load as Timmy, Doyle's stand-in. Barth does a great job early on as Frank, the brother who is always lurking right outside the door to steal your secrets and report them to mom (who of course rewards him). There will probably be more work ahead for Andy Walken as third youngest William, who appears to be the house intellectual and the same will likely be true of Caleb Foote as second son Eddie, who mostly wants Lawrence to assume the duties of the oldest son for fear that if he doesn't (like becoming a priest), it will fall to him. Early jokes that have Peggy outwardly mocking Eddie as unexceptional could use some toning down. Doyle and the writers appear to have made a key decision to let the youngest actor, Barnard, who plays sickly Pat, just act afraid most of the time, which limits the pitfalls of giving him too much to handle or making him wise beyond his years like most other sitcoms do.

All told there's much to like in The Kids Are Alright, partly owing to the era being ripe with possibilities and partly because Doyle's sense of humor about his childhood rings mostly true as it reflects and finds well-earned comedy in nostalgia.

Cast: Michael Cudlitz, Mary McCormack, Sam Straley, Caleb Foote, Sawyer Barth, Christopher Paul Richards, Jack Gore, Andy Walken, Santino Barnard; narrated by Tim Doyle

Created and written by Tim Doyle

Directed by: Randall Einhorn

Premieres Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., on ABC