Television is an actor’s medium. Over the last couple of decades it has become nicer to look at, certainly, shipping out atmospheric pretty pictures to fill your wall-sized super-high-definition flat screen. But its roots are in a relatively low-fi medium, whose small, squarish frame was dominated by performers. As visually sophisticated as television has become, it still depends mainly on faces, bodies and voices.
TV actors have — and have to have — a special quality. They need to feel familiar and original, not to seem like people on television. Great TV characters transcend their stories to become … neighbors in a way, family even. You welcome them weekly, with expectation, the fulfillment of which is what makes a TV series delightful. Every great series, and many less than great, rides on the shoulders of its actors, I could spend a day just naming them.
Amid this bounty, no performer delighted me more than Mary McCormack as Peggy Cleary in “The Kids Are Alright.” Tim Doyle’s semi-autobiographical comedy about growing up in a large Irish-Catholic family in early 1970s Southern California had a single season on ABC from October 2018 to May 2019. Like many of the best network sitcoms, it was smart and subversive while seeming to be perfectly ordinary.
That it was canceled is just show business, not a measure of its consistently high quality. And its 23 episodes — as many as a cable or streaming comedy might produce in three years — are still available for purchase from Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and Vudu. Should you be loath to get started on a show that has already been canceled, know that there is a satisfying emotional arc to the season; you won’t be left hanging.
McCormack has a kind of 20th century sass, a lively impertinence you find in classic Hollywood comedians like Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne and Rosalind Russell. On the face of it, many miles separate the stay-at-home mother of “The Kids Are Alright” and Mary Shannon, the federal agent she played from 2008 to 2014 on USA’s “In Plain Sight,” yet they share a quick-talking, wisecracking capability and impatience with chaos.
There are story lines that don’t involve Peggy at all, and it would be wrong to downplay the contribution of the show’s cast of young, less young and very young actors who play the eight Cleary sons, or Michael Cudlitz as husband Mike. But McCormack is the show’s center of gravity, the sun around which they revolve.
The show subverts the usual ideals of motherliness, not to create a black-comic monster but a new sort of heroine. What Peggy brings to the family is not tough love but a kind of tactical neglect that leaves room for practical engagement. She wants them out of her way, and under her sway.
With so many temperamentally distinct Clearly boys, McCormack can play a range of attitudes. Each requires a different sort of handling; each elicits an individual, not necessarily affectionate response. (“There’s a couple I’ll be happy to see the back of,” she admits.)
Joey is a hustler, whose ingenuity Peggy respects even as she disapproves of his schemes; Frank a hovering snitch, whose intel she appreciates even as she finds him annoying and tiresome. Oldest son Lawrence (Sam Straley) a seminary dropout and the sanest of all, is a voice for new ideas his parents find absurd.
Timmy (Joe Gore), Tim Doyle’s stand-in, whose starry-eyed ambition Peggy admires — he’s an attention-seeking middle child, dreaming of show business — even as she finds him fundamentally incomprehensible. Eddie (Caleb Foote) is a knucklehead whose above-his-grade girlfriend, Wendi (Kennedy Lea Slocum), gives Peggy another woman to play off; Pat (Santino Barnard), who is next to youngest (there’s an infant), is fearful and gleeful in unaccountable ways.
There are places Peggy won’t go emotionally, but as not going there is part of her character, McCormack has to signal both the qualities she is and isn’t playing, an actor’s version of a painter’s use of negative space. Much of her dialogue consists of misdirection and avoidance, and she supplements the words with eye rolls, eyebrow raises, gunslinger stares and untranscribable hmms, hmmmphs and harrumphs. Peggy is never entirely at ease; she is always alert to the everyday dangers that surround her and, by extension, her family.
“I was never really called to be a mother,” she says. “You make the best of a bad situation.”
As a troublesome truth emerges or things fall apart, McCormack will recalibrate her tone, tack and attack with the suddenness of a Jackie Chan martial arts routine or a Carl Stallings “Looney Tunes” score. At times this will happen in a single line of dialogue, as when she says of a son’s girlfriend, “There’s nothing not to like about her — I’ll find it.”
She wraps acid in sugar, disguises brutal honesty in singsong tones of love. She’s proud but practical, solid but protean, conventional but a little wicked in ways she doesn’t quite recognize, or at least won’t admit to. It’s a deceptively subtle music that McCormack makes, soft-edged, delivered at low to middle volume, in a low to middle register.
To Joey, who has just betrayed Peggy: “This is a new low young man — blatantly disobeying me when I specifically told you to lie to your father.”
To Pat, next youngest to the baby and worried he may have to go to Vietnam: “Oh, honey. That’s not going to happen. There’ll be a whole different war by then. I only hope you and I are on the same side.”
In the final episode — emotional spoiler ahead — Peggy lets herself be hugged by Lawrence, who had moved back home at the beginning of the season, and is now moving out to live with a girlfriend. She ventures a pat on his back and closes her eyes, in a subtle concentration of feeling. For an instant, she radiates relief, and pulls you in like a whirlpool.