THE SERIES "The Kids Are Alright"
WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC/7
WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Clearys are a loving but fractious family, trying to navigate their way through a changing and divided world. They live outside Los Angeles in the early '70s, but their faith and family values keep the chaos at bay. They have enough chaos of their own, anyway: Mike (Michael Cudlitz) is a machinist at an aerospace company and Peggy (Mary McCormack) is a homemaker and mom to eight boys, including Lawrence (Sam Straley), who wants to leave the seminary, and Timmy (Jack Gore), who wants to sing lead in a Hollywood kids' production of "Man of La Mancha."
MY SAY "The Kids Are Alright" is a genetically modified organism of a sitcom. It's a hybridization of "The Wonder Years," "Last Man Standing," "The Middle" — especially "The Middle" — and any number of other shows that aren't coming to mind at the moment.
What it's most obviously not is "The Kids Are All Right," Lisa Cholodenko's 2010 big screen comedy about a same-sex couple raising a pair of teenagers. This is the alt-universe series of that, in fact, and note the subtle difference with the ABC title, possibly to establish distance or avoid a lawsuit. (The genesis of the title is most likely from the track on The Who's 1965 album, "My Generation.")
But given the GMO nature of "Kids" and the larceny of the title, here's what so surprising: It's good. Showrunner Tim Doyle, the former executive producer of "Last Man Standing," obviously knows his way around big Irish Catholic American families of the late 20th century. In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the Humanae Vitae encyclical banning all forms of artificial contraception, but the American church — or at least some elements of it — told the flock to ignore it. Since then, average family size in Catholic homes has declined, but in 1972, sprawling broods like the Clearys were common. The tumult, chaos and divergent interests of these many brothers feels authentic, and so do the besieged parents who are trying to hold it all together with a modest paycheck and as much love as they can divide among eight boys.
"The Kids" is also key to ABC's effort to get back to the middle — literally the middle of the country that still watches TV. This effort has been going on for a while, to mixed results. "Roseanne," for example, was spectacularly successful until it wasn't, and a harsh lesson was learned. The idea now is to engineer a show that appeals to Red State viewers without necessarily identifying with their politics. Cudlitz's Michael Cleary is the counterpart to "Last Man Standing's" Mike Baxter (Tim Allen). He's a love-it-or-leave-it guy, but McCormack's Peggy, when pressed (as she frequently is), tends to be more of a live-and-let-live type.
The kids test them both, and from the conflict comes sit-comedy. But like all smart GMOs, the resolution — and comfort food message — arrives in the closing seconds. "People remember the '70s as a divisive time," says Tim as an adult in voiceover. "But when I think back on my ridiculous family, it gives me hope for today.
"Tense times are something we have to go through once in a while to come out the other side a changed and more accepting world."
So — it would appear — is "The Kids Are Alright."
BOTTOM LINE "Kids" is a shrewdly engineered genetically modified organism that still manages to feel authentic.