I grew up without brothers or sisters, the dreaded only child.
Many of my friends and cousins, however, were part of large Catholic families. The Bullocks numbered eight kids and one elderly auntie, although no one ever saw all of them in the same room at the same time. My cousins who lived north of Toronto on a farm totaled nine altogether. The McConveys and the Curries held at six kids, both sets of parents issuing five boys and one girl (the youngest). The five Kerwin lads all wore their Chicago Blackhawks sweaters every time they hit the ice.
For several summers, I would be shipped off to my farm cousins for one week; their lad, Normie, my age, would get sprung for a week in our house. It was all part of the cousins exchange program. It was a mind blower for me; food would arrive at meal time and be consumed before it hit the table. Three or five of us would be tossed into a bathtub at any one time. Then those 45 pound bales of hay — please!
The madcap Bullock household was the biggest free-for-all. Mrs Bullock, Rita, kept everything Catholic first, orderly second. Survival was a skill learned at the dinner table; hands could be lost reaching for a chicken leg.
Sharper than the kitchen knives was the wit. The McConveys’ mom stayed above the frey, but everyone else majored in sarcasm. Mr. Bullock, who could be devastatingly funny, generally only spoke to evict someone; otherwise one raised eyebrow was enough to cause any guest to settle.
The folks who came up with The Kids Are Alright must have sat at one of those dinner tables. Their sitcom, seen Tuesday nights on ABC and CTV, gets everything right about big, Irish-Catholic families growing up in the early ’70s.
These are ten people, three bedrooms, one bathrooms and everyone is in it for themselves.
Mary McCormack’s performance as matriarch Peggy, is dead on right. Mrs. Bullock, God rest her soul, should sue from the beyond. Peggy’s devastating side eye squint could cause knees to buckle. The early episode where middle child Timmy (Jack Gore) enters a poetry contest by forging one of his mom’s school girl efforts nails all the f-ed up psychology of family dynamics in mid-century, Irish-Catholic, North American suburban households. Mom teaches son a big lesson: never admit deception or failure. Her pride at her boy’s power play at the end overrides completely the fact that she has raised an ace liar.
The dad, Mike (Michael Cudlitz, The Walking Dead), plays the parental counter point beautifully. Dad just wants peace and order in the family and he’s willing to knock heads together to get it. The one head he can’t crack is Peggy’s, clearly demonstrated in the episode where the family get their first microwave. The clan gets an early peak at the thick, steel contraption thanks to dad’s connections in the air and space industry (the series is set in Glendale, Calif.). He’s thrilled to test out the voodoo magic of microwave technology; Peggy just wants to stick a fork in it. Theirs is truly a nuclear family, where truce outweighs truth and happy endings are settled on one day at a time.
The kids on The Kids are Alright are alright, too. The early standout is Gore as Timmy. As a middle child he yearns to be different and sneaks off to audition for a musical despite mom’s warning that this family can’t afford different. When he rises to the occasion, Peggy’s pride is almost too much for even her to contain.
Executive producer Tim Doyle based this series on his own, large, Irish-Catholic family. One thing he got exactly right is that every single child is different. Each big family has a weasel and here it is Frank (played by Sawyer Barth). Mom knows she can rely on her snitch. Christopher Paul Richards plays family con artist Joey. He knows everybody’s weakness — even mom Peggy’s — and can play them all. Young Santiago Bernard plays runt of the litter (aside from the baby) Pat, who would like help with his asthma except, again, mom deems he can’t afford asthma. Young William (Andy Walken) is quietly brilliant, keeping out of conflicts by reading “Dune.” Older lad Eddie (Caleb Foote) is just trying to live his life and stay under the radar.
Sam Straley has the daunting challenge of playing eldest Lawrence, who, as the series starts, has just quit the seminary and walked away from the priesthood. There’s a lot to unpack there, including how the priesthood was perceived in the early ’70s compared to how it plays today. Disney-owned ABC can’t go as far under the collar as could, say, Showtime or FX. Again, however, this storyline rings loud bells for me, having had two friends who were the oldest sons in big Irish Catholic families being at least tacidly placed at the alter of Rome. Kudos to Doyle and the series for not tarring the Catholic experience of the ’70s with today’s scandal brush, although it would be fascinating to eventually see how stories of temptation and faith would be handled through this lens.
Straley also has to bear the weight of playing the hippie in the family. Drugs, Vietnam, that horrible long-haired wig he is wearing — all could overwhelm this series eventually.
In the meantime, I want in at this table every week. The Kids are Alright is as stand-out funny and true as the floral wallpaper and harvest gold range hood on Peggy’s kitchen walls. This is the best new network series of the season.