Nothing in life is permanent, least of all television. But we are creatures of the moment, and the imminent next moment: As it’s happening, the loss of a TV series can feel like a kick in the head.
Mary McCormack is feeling that loss, from the inside. Known for her roles in “Murder One” and “The West Wing,” and as the lead of USA’s federal-marshal drama “In Plain Sight,” McCormack most recently was the star of ABC’s marvelous “The Kids Are Alright,” an anti-sentimental sitcom about a big Irish Catholic family living on a budget in suburban Los Angeles in the early 1970s. McCormack played Peggy Cleary, the caring-within-practical-limits mother of eight boys; Michael Cudlitz played her husband, Mike. Smartly written, reliably funny, acted with wit and precision, it was a show I never missed, and will miss. After a tense period “on the bubble,” it was canceled in early May.
There is a sort of ritual now, when a show ends, or seems in danger of ending, in trying to shock it back to life. It has worked in the past — from the letter-writing campaign that earned the original “Star Trek” a third season, to NBC’s almost immediate adoption of Fox’s abandoned “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” — and with so many outlets now in operation, it’s natural enough to believe there’s a home for everything. The #save hashtags come out; critics write supportive articles; celebrities pipe up. Fans take out ads, launch petitions, bombard executives with mass mailings, rent planes to fly banners over studios. Few shows manage to come back from cancellation, but you don’t want to be the fool who went down with the ship when there was a lifeboat waiting with an open seat. So it was with “The Kids Are Alright.”
It’s now August, and McCormack is still not through with the series.
“It feels too short,” she says when we meet to talk. “It’s hard to get something really funny and nuanced and moving, and I thought our show was all those things. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand about how shows find new homes, but you do hear about it. And I guess because you hear about it, your fans think there’s hope. There are just so many networks now — networks I’ve never heard of. So I’m still holding out a little hope that someone will look at us and see we’re like the already housebroken cute shelter pet that needs someone to adopt them.”
She’s living in a sort of quantum state, between hopefulness and hopelessness, not ready to admit defeat while reckoning defeat as the most likely outcome. (“Some women do get pregnant at 44,” says McCormack, who had her last child at 42. “But mostly it’s a no.”) Asked about the current disposition of the show’s sets, she replies, “I’m sure they’re folded away and packed up. But we can unpack pretty quickly. I don’t know that they’ve been destroyed. I mean, they may have been. It’s depressing.”
A few days after I talk with McCormack, series creator, showrunner and narrator Tim Doyle — who based “The Kids Are Alright” on his own family — takes a job running “Schooled,” ABC’s 1990s-set spinoff of “The Goldbergs.” The cast’s contracts expired at the end of June; McCormack herself is “meeting this week about something. I liked it enough to do it. I don’t know if I’ll get it, but I have to work.” And yet she is of two minds, wanting to leave room for the possible return of Peggy Cleary. Of her own managers and agents, she says, “I think that they’re waiting for me just to get another job so I’ll stop this. But what if it happens?”
It was the first show she could watch with her three daughters, ages 7 to 14, she says. “I did an American Girl doll movie once, because they were into the American Girl dolls. They could watch that. But not like a week-to-week thing. And they really liked it. There was only one episode they couldn’t watch — they’ve never seen the masturbation episode. My 14-year-old could go outside [to see it], but not with me, ’cause I have that scene where I rub up against the dryer. There are certain boundaries I’m not really interested in crossing.” Her daughters call her Peggy when she’s strict: “Peggy’s here.”
“I love playing her, selfishly,” McCormack says of Peggy. “I could really sit in that for a while. It’s just a funny, funny part, first and foremost. But also I grew up in a house like that, with women like that. Sometimes she would say a line dripping with disdain, sometimes just a word. She’d be like — ‘love,’ or ‘education’ — the nicest words in the world, she just would [dismissively], ‘Pfff.’ I love that underneath all that she was into love and connection but so embarrassed by it, and having to be hard for survival, that she didn’t allow herself that. It’s nice to have all those layers in a comedy.
“I love all her looks, I love rolling my eyes — my husband literally spends our whole relationship going, ‘Everyone can see you.’ ’Cause I have no poker face at all. And to be mean to kids is fun — to be curt with them and gruff, it’s funny. I had a line where, I’m trying to put the baby to sleep and Mike comes in blustery, and I said something like, ‘I swear to God, if you wake this baby, I will beat you to death with this baby.’ It’s one of the best lines I probably will ever have. It’s just the most relatable thing.”
While the show was still in renewal limbo, Doyle shot a video at the “Kids” house in which McCormack, in character as Peggy, addressed herself to ABC president Karey Burke, “powerful woman to powerful woman” (“As I see it, the only fair thing is to treat our show equally by giving the favoritism it deserves”), while Caleb Foote, as second son Eddie, struggled in the background with an ice cream cone. On her own, McCormack assembled a short video of celebrity friends and fans — Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, Debra Messing, Chelsea Handler, Alison Janney and Mark Hamill, most filming themselves on cell phones — speaking on the show’s behalf. (Hamill, whom McCormack has yet to meet, is a superfan, tweeting his support for the series before and after its cancellation: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? HELL NO.”)
“These were real fans,” McCormack says. “Every week, they’d write me lines they loved.” It never occurred to her to ask them to appear on the show, though. “I’m not a producer. I want to stay in my lane, do my job. But I feel like I should have done that.”
In a letter to Burke accompanying her famous-fans video, McCormack wrote of her daughters’ love for “I Love Lucy,” because the character was “so good, so well drawn, so unafraid, so impetuous and so never, ever a pushover. Girls need that. They need to look to the past and see a version of their mothers and themselves. They need to watch something funny that they can rewatch over and over again and see a woman with a sharp wit in fabulous clothes being amazing in a culture that isn’t exactly theirs but speaks loudly to them.”
Still, this piece is not exactly a eulogy. As of this writing, and for the unforeseeable future, the series’ 23 episodes — three or four years’ worth of most streaming or cable comedies — are available to watch on Hulu, for new viewers to discover and old fans to watch again. Peggy Cleary still may be your, or your kids’, Lucy Ricardo.
“When I got ‘Murder One,’” McCormack says, recalling her first series, "[producer] Steven Bochco had, like, a kickoff cookout. We were all there, young actors sitting around a table in his backyard, and he came up and said, ‘How’s everyone doing?’ And we’re like, ‘So excited! So happy to be here!’ I had been waiting tables like a week before, and I had never been to L.A., never mind the backyard of a house in the Palisades. The whole thing was so … heady. And he said, ‘Just remember that feeling, ’cause a few episodes from now you’ll be saying, “My character would never say this.” But just remember, anything can happen — you can drive in a storm, all kinds of horrible things can happen to a character.’ So we all knew to stay grateful.
“If it’s done,” McCormack says finally of her latest show, but certainly not her last, “we just have to take our beautiful year of TV and be happy with that.”