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Review: Mary McCormack is more than all right in 'The Kids Are Alright'

Review: Mary McCormack is more than all right in 'The Kids Are Alright'
Sawyer Barth, left, Santino Barnard, Christopher Paul Richards, Caleb Foot, an unidentified baby, Mary McCormack and Jack Gore play seven-tenths of an Irish American family in the new ABC sitcom "The Kids Are Alright." (Tony Rivetti / ABC)

The time traveling cultural tour that is ABC's family of family sitcoms — "Fresh Off the Boat," "The Goldbergs," "black-ish," "Speechless," et al. — adds a new stop Tuesday with "The Kids Are Alright," which brings us a big Irish Catholic family in 1972 suburban Southern California. With eight sons, ranging from 20 down to infancy, it is a brood unrivaled in size since "Eight Is Enough" (also on ABC) went off the air. Even "The Waltons" managed only seven kids. (Reality shows do not count.)

ABC mounted an earlier Irish Catholic family sitcom "The Real O'Neals," in 2016, on which “Kids” creator Tim Doyle was a consulting producer. Its twists were a gay teenage son and separating parents; the twist here, besides the period setting and the size of the household, is … not much twist.

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Scheduled to follow "The Conners" in a sort of meat-and-potatoes programming bloc, this is a solidly old-school show — with a little wicked modern attitude — as might be expected from a man whose resumé as a writer, producer and/or showrunner covers three decades of TV comedy, including "Dinosaurs," "Grace Under Fire," "Ellen," "Sports Night," "Still Standing," "Aliens in America," "The Big Bang Theory," "Rules of Engagement" and the original “Roseanne.”

If there is nothing formally to distinguish “The Kids Are Alright” from that mass of American sitcoms, if it is modest in its ambitious and familiar in its beats, it has energy, plenty of well-milled jokes and a fine cast of actors that sit convincingly in their parts from the start.

Starring Mary McCormack and Michael Cudlitz as Peggy and Mike Cleary, respectively, it recalls yet another ABC series, also set during the Nixon administration and narrated wisely from the present day: "The Wonder Years." Like Fred Savage’s Kevin Arnold at the start of that earlier show, central character and Doyle stand-in Timmy Cleary (Jack Gore), is 12, with a father working for a defense contractor. And like "The Wonder Years," "Kids" is out to mine comedy, and a little poignancy, from family relations in a changing time, from what stays and what goes.

Mary McCormack plays the mother of eight sons on the new ABC situation comedy "The Kids Are Alright."
Mary McCormack plays the mother of eight sons on the new ABC situation comedy "The Kids Are Alright." (Richard Cartwright / ABC)

Timmy, described by his adult self as "the needy middle child," wants to be seen; he regards himself as creative, a star in waiting. This carries little weight in a household where the children, by virtue of being so numerous, are routinely kept, if not quite in place, at least away from anything that will require extra money or attention.

"Honestly, Timmy," Peggy tells him, "if you had any talent at all, I think I would have noticed."

We hear of Dacron and velour, Woodsy Owl and the "ecology," Waldorf salad and farmworker strikes. Sometimes the writing trips in time, as when No. 4 son Joey (Christopher Paul Richards) uses the phrase "take a chill pill" a decade before that was something people said. And Mike's reaction to Watergate takes a pointed leap into a farther future: "You know what I call Watergate? It's phony news."

But this is less a crash course in the 1970s than a little comic exploitation of a world before smartphones. "It was the Wild West," says Timmy’s future adult self, looking back, inexactly. "Bike helmets hadn't been invented yet, or car seat belts or nutrition, or even normal adult supervision." It was the best worst of times.

It seems possible that Mike and Peggy do not love all their children equally, as parents are more or less forced to say they do, and similarly, in any series with so many regular characters, some are going to get lost. Still, one manages to distinguish among them fairly quickly. Among the more distinct are oldest brother Lawrence (Sam Straley), who returns home for the summer from the seminary with hair like Jesus wore it to be his father's political foil; third son Frank (Sawyer Barth), a middle child among the older siblings and a bitter, meddling snitch; Joey, who is a quiet trouble; and Pat (Santino Barnard), the next-to-youngest, small and fearful.

Andy Walken as William Cleary listens to brother Timmy (Jack Gore) sing in the pilot episode of ABC's "The Kids Are Alright."
Andy Walken as William Cleary listens to brother Timmy (Jack Gore) sing in the pilot episode of ABC's "The Kids Are Alright." (Tony Rivetti / ABC)

What “The Kids Are Alright” has going for it most of all is McCormack, who makes the most of a role cut to her talents. Peggy has certain native ideas about what works for her, and therefore for her family, and certain received ideas about what's right in the world, which she is also willing to bend to her needs. (A domestic improviser, she admires her clever sons more than the merely good ones.) The actress combines these qualities into an original character who’s strict and surprising by turns, dismissive and caring, more fluid than fixed.

Many of her lines turn on a subtle shift of expectations, as in, "Frank, about you being such a big tattletale — thank you." Or, responding to Timmy, who suggests he could take a bus to Hollywood, or hitchhike, “You know, I don't approve of that — wasting good money on buses.” But even when a joke is obvious, her readings never are.

As with the “Roseanne” revival, and given that Doyle was the showrunner on “Last Man Standing,” with its conservative lead character, some might be inclined to regard “The Kids Are Alright” as a bone thrown toward the right. But Doyle wants to build a bridge, not a wall: “People remember the 1970s as a tense and a divisive time,” he says himself at the end of the pilot episode, proposing that maybe “tense times are just something we have to go through once in a while, to come out the other side a changed, more accepting world."

Good luck with that. But on television, at least, everything is fine.

‘The Kids Are Alright’

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Where: ABC

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)

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