Just as NBC’s ’90s “Must See TV” era was defined by an array of nearly identical shows about young singles, ABC’s comedy programming in the 2010s is on track to be remembered as a gaggle of nearly identical sitcoms about families. Since the massive success of “Modern Family” in 2009, ABC has consistently added more family-centric shows to their lineup, to the point where they are abundant enough to fill their own programming block.
While initially charming, the families have increasingly become predictable. An “ABC Family” (no pun intended) will be large and loud with an overbearing (but well-meaning) mother, a cool child, a nerdy child, maybe a quirky grandparent and so on. Recently, a new twist was conceived: take the same formula and add nostalgia. Normally, a show’s cohesion to the existing brand of the network is a good sign. Saying that “The Kids Are Alright” fits in perfectly should be a compliment to the show, but, alas it is not.
“The Kids Are Alright” centers around the humongous Cleary clan. They are Catholic, brash, politically-incorrect and, with eight sons rounding out the family, the testosterone is practically oozing from the screen. None of these characteristics should come as a surprise, as the series comes from showrunner Tim Doyle (previously credited with shows like “Roseanne” and “Last Man Standing”). The show follows the family as they navigate the turbulent social climate of the early ’70s. “The Kids Are Alright” sets lofty goals for itself, promising to deliver ample characterization for each of the the 10 members of the family, as well as picking a setting wherein much can be unpacked and paralleled to today. The show fails to deliver on both accounts.
In the pilot episode, we are introduced to protagonist Timmy (Jack Gore, “Ferdinand”), the middle child of the bunch. And in typical middle child fashion, his entire storyline involves going to dire straits to be noticed by his parents. His attention-deficit disorder reaches a fever pitch upon the return of his eldest brother Lawrence (Sam Straley, “Chicago P.D.”) from seminary. Desperate for someone to notice him, Timmy establishes a phony charity to raise enough money to pay for an audition for a theatre troupe. The B-plot centers around Lawrence’s struggle to tell his father that he does not want to pursue the priesthood, and has no idea what he wants to do with his life anymore. Despite having a story that is centered around two characters’ very real struggles, none of the characters felt any more familiar by the end of the episode than they did at the beginning.
It was a mistake for the pilot to focus so fervently on Tommy and Lawrence. While entertaining and definitely funny, it greatly lacked exposition. For a show that marketed itself for being about such a large and crazy family, there was an expectation that viewers would be able to get to know a little about them. By the episode’s close, it is only revealed that Eddie (Caleb Foote, “American Horror Story”), the second eldest, has a girlfriend, one of the brothers is a big tattle-tale and another happens to be a bit quieter. Introductions could have been as simple as a fast-paced montage to familiarize the audience with each one of the brothers. While it is impossible for each brother to have a majority stake in the plot in every episode, the show needs to find some middle ground between that possibility and the feeling that the other brothers are just filler.
In fact, many elements of the show feel like filler, particularly the backdrop. If “The Kids Are Alright” is a semi-autobiographical look at Doyle’s life, it should not feel as hollow as it does. The lighting, set design and costumes are all clearly executed to perfection, and the music selection is sublime. However, this is not a proper substitute for zeitgeist or heart. Multiple times in the episode, characters vaguely refer to the “changes” happening all around them. With so many “changes” being alluded to, it felt like a let-down that the only subversive conversation on-screen was a talk between father and son about the importance of a college degree and a half-baked reference to women maybe being able to make their own decisions.
Who knows? It is only the first episode. Maybe over time, “The Kids Are Alright” can challenge itself to identify and question the parallels between issues back then and issues now. Hopefully, the show can elevate itself out of the niche of shallow nostalgia. This is particularly important, because the thing about shallow nostalgia — especially for a period as regressive for the rights of marginalized groups as the early ’70s — is that rather than coming across as a wistful look to the past, it appears more like a plea to return to it.