Critic's Notebook

Chris O'Dowd instills a hometown feel in Hulu comedy 'Moone Boy'

Critic's Notebook: Chris O'Dowd on the return of his autobiographical Hulu comedy 'Moone Boy'

Last week brought to Hulu the return of "Moone Boy," a fanciful yet happily not adorable, not-quite-coming-of-age Irish comedy in which Chris O'Dowd plays the imaginary friend of a woolly headed boy based somewhat on himself. Be glad, America.

Tall and bearded, with eyes that can twinkle sadly, O'Dowd -- also the series' cowriter, with Nick Vincent Murphy, and this year its sole director -- is probably best known here for his big-screen turns in "Bridesmaids" and "This Is 40." On television, he's had a recurring role in "Girls" and played the lead in Christopher Guest's (sadly single-season) HBO series "Family Tree." On Broadway, he was Tony-nominated in 2014 for "Of Mice and Men," in which he played Lennie to James Franco's George. He is soulful in a quiet and often comical way.

Now in its third six-episode season, the series is set in his own home town of Boyle, Ireland, in the late 1980s and early '90s, when O'Dowd, 35, was about the age of youthful protagonist Martin Moone (the marvelous David Rawle).

"He's much more charming than I was at that age, I think," said O’Dowd, by phone recently. "And I think when you get to write a version of yourself the No. 1 thing to do is to make them more charming than you remember yourself being."

Martin’s family also shares details with O’Dowd’s own: father (Peter McDonald) is a sign painter, mother (Deirdre O’Kane) a Weight Watchers leader this season turned self-schooled therapist, three older sisters (Aoife Duffin, Clare Monnelly, Sarah White) of varying temperaments dominate his view.

"It's a strong matriarchal family," said O’Dowd, and the reason Martin has conjured up Sean Murphy, his dress-alike comrade. "He feels like he's kind of submerging slowly in female quicksand and he needs a wingman to elevate him from it; it's a masculine, macho bearded confidant that he requires."

At the same time, though Martin is "imaginative enough to have an imaginary friend, he’s not imaginative enough to make it something spectacular. I like that his imaginary friend is just a personification of how he seems himself in 30 years' time, which is essentially a midlevel insurance salesman." As Martin, Rawles evinces an almost heroic mix of dreaminess and determination, fueled by bad information and his own strange notions.

"I think like all good comedy characters he has that wonderful thing of great self-confidence without having any reason to have self-confidence," said O’Dowd, who chose the actor from “maybe 150 kids -- I had made my job harder in the casting process by insisting that nobody had ever been on screen before and that they were from within 50 miles of where I grew up, because I felt that that kind of voice wasn’t on television. And it meant that there was loads of lovely local kids that just didn't have a knack for it. And then David came in and he was so charming and sweet and shy and thoughtful.

"As time went on we realized we could trust him to deliver nearly anything; we never really had to explain a joke to him. I mean, it's a fairly family friendly show -- it was never going to be particularly dirty or whatever -- but sometimes timing-wise there can be complexities, and he always got it."

As the seat of all Martin’s joys and desires, Boyle itself is integral to the series. “Why would anyone run away from Boyle?” he wonders in one of the new season's early episodes, when his friend Padriac (Ian O'Reilly) briefly goes missing. “That just makes no sense.”

"Over the years, it's become a satellite town for bigger cities," said O'Dowd, "but when I was growing up and before that it was well known as a market town. People would come to sell their horses and their donkeys and play music and get raucous. There's something still quite raucous and fun about it; it hasn't changed very much at all. In fact when we brought the production designer to town at the start of the first series to have a look, he said he didn't need to change anything. Which was for us financially useful -- but for the town really an indictment.

"It's an odd sensation,” O’Dowd continued, "because I know everybody in town, really. Sometimes I'll be filming on the streets and people will just come up and say hello in the middle of a scene. And because I feel like I've kind of hoisted this whole show on the town without necessarily them asking for it, I can't shy away from embracing them. So I'll just stop the scene and say hello and then when they move on we'll start shooting again."

As a period piece, set a moment of great national change, there is also a social component to the comedy. Men are getting in touch with their feelings, Ireland elects its first woman president, and, O’Dowd added, "The Catholic Church was starting to be slightly ridiculed -- whether you love religion or hate religion, it's kind of nice when these massive bodies that have imposed their will on the population for so long can be poked fun at for the first time.

"I guess they did something similar in 'The Wonder Years' with Vietnam and everything. I watched the first episode of that again four or five months ago, and it's really wonderful. It wouldn't even be classed as a comedy now. That was a big reference point for us, and it's nice that we get to play a part in that line."

Although the current season has been reported to be the last of Moone, O’Dowd -- who is adapting the series for ABC and has cowritten a book, “Moone Boy: The Blunder Years” -- says there’s more to come.

"We're working on a special or a film," said O'Dowd. "I felt it needed a little break because I thought we had written all the stories for an 11-year-old that we could conjure up. So we thought it would be fun to revisit when he's 14, 15 and dealing with girls, so we'll have more opportunities to go into different kinds of plots.

"Does he have this imaginary friend forever? Maybe that would be something that would be fun when it's far less reasonable to have an imaginary friend -- and somewhat tragic."

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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