Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Kids Are More Than All Right -- and you have a second chance to see them

or as much success as ABC has had in launching comedies that introduced us to American families of different ethnicities -- black-ish, The Goldbergs, and Fresh Off the Boat, as the most prominent examples -- the network has for some reason been unable, or more likely too impatient, to make a success out of a sitcom featuring an Irish-American clan.

In 2016, ABC launched the very funny The Real O'Neals, about a modern day Irish-Catholic family with a gay son -- but cancelled the whole enterprise after just two abbreviated seasons and 29 episodes.

Then in 2018 came The Kids Are Alright, an, I daresay, even better, funnier comedy, about the exploits of the gaggle of eight Cleary brothers and their comically world-weary parents (Mary McCormack and Michael Cudlitzin the turbulent 1970s. One needn't be Irish-American like me to appreciate the warmth and authenticity of this truly laugh-out-loud show -- plus, isn't everyone Irish at least that one day a year in March? -- but ABC clearly didn't see it that way.  In one of the network's more shocking, short-sighted cancellations of late (although remember, they also prematurely cancelled The Real O'Neals, Better Off Ted and Happy Endings, so should we be surprised, really?), the Cleary Kids lasted just one season.

I'm sure no one was as disappointed as the show's creator, Tim Doyle, and not just for the usual workaday reasons, but because The Kids Are Alright was based on his own upbringing, as the artistic child with acting aspirations amid a writhing horde of brothers.  Doyle, whose credits include beloved shows like Better Off Ted and Ellen, on which he served as executive producer, used his acting background to provide the voiceover narration for the show, which faithfully retold many of his own hilariously humiliating life stories.

But now, in a streaming world, is any sitcom family truly dead?  Just recently, all twenty-three episodes of The Kids Are Alright popped up on Hulu, which is both a joy and relief to me, because now I can safely delete them from the valuable real estate on my DVR.  In celebration of the Clearys' return, I asked Tim six questions -- I should have made it eight, one for each Cleary kid -- about why we should watch.

Must-Hear TV:  How did the show end up getting on Hulu?

Tim Doyle:  During the initial run, Disney made each episode available after airing on the website and Hulu. But after we didn’t get our season two order, it was quickly pulled down from both — which seemed weird. I didn’t understand their hurry to make us unavailable. Other canceled ABC shows were still being offered. Hell, there are canceled shows which I wrote back in the ‘90s still running on those sites. My first TV job, Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs, is coming back to Disney+ in a couple of weeks!

Fans of The Kids Are Alright kept contacting me on social media, complaining they couldn’t watch those original 23 episodes — nothing on any streaming service, no DVD release. What gives? Then when the quarantine descended, it just struck me as wasteful, like the company was missing a bet to give folks something they might enjoy bingeing during these crazy times, and maybe even build a new audience who didn’t find the show during its network run.

When fans reached out, I basically started encouraging them to write to Disney Channel, Disney+, ABC, Hulu — the various platforms Disney now owns. These fans are passionate. I think they even sent a few pleading letters to Nat Geo! And suddenly I got a nice email from Peter Rice, the CEO of Walt Disney Television, telling me that Kids would go back up on Hulu starting August 5. No idea what their internal process was, but I have to assume that viewer enthusiasm must have played a role.

MHTV:  How do you feel about the show being back and available for viewers to discover?

TD:  I obviously think it’s great. You make these shows to be seen, and I’m afraid Kids never really got the launch it deserved. Any interest in our premiere got massively overshadowed by the huge scandal in fall of 2018 surrounding Roseanne getting herself fired from our lead-in show, The Conners.

The press pretty much ignored our premiere, when they weren’t being preemptively dismissive as they often are with new network offerings. The glib wisdom regarding us was that we were just a ‘70s version of The Goldbergs — which nobody who watched a single episode would ever actually say. I must have read ten versions of the same smarty-pants “Goldberg Variations” joke among the quippy quick hot takes folks who write for the short attention span media.

It was gratifying, however, when more serious TV columnists weighed in and we got almost universal praise, I assume because they actually took the time to watch the episodes. We received an extremely high rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well, and the pilot script earned a WGA nomination for best writing of a comedy episode. I felt confident that if we made past summer we could easily pick up a few Emmy nods — at least Mary McCormack, Michael Cudlitz and our art department. With that encouragement the cast and crew worked insanely hard and delivered a consistently strong first series of 23 episodes. The show did well but was never quite a ratings hit, struggling to break through all the media clutter. So now I feel like there’s git to be a massive captive audience out there who can discover and love this show if we can only help them find it on Hulu.

MHTV:  What to you is so personal about the Clearys that you want to share with the audience?

The Kids Are Alright creator
Tim Doyle with his TV alter ego,
Jack Gore, at PaleyFest,
September 8, 2018.
TD:  Well, it really is based upon my childhood, my family, my parents -- so writing it was the most gratifying and fascinating creative act I have ever experienced, a true act of confession — of saying things I’ve always wanted to say about being a brother, being a parent, being a son, being a Catholic, being lower middle class, and living through that very confusing decade of the 1970s. For thirty years I’ve been writing other people’s TV shows, telling my own stories only through that distorted, veiled lens. By contrast Kids was so pure and gratifying. No, it’s not a documentary. A lot of things had to be changed from my real life for technical reasons, for legal reasons, or for comedy, but... I can now say to my daughter, or some grandchild down the road... to anybody interested, really: If you want to know who I am, watch the show. It’s all in there. I got that rare opportunity in an artist’s life to cut straight down to the bone and give you my DNA. And a major corporation paid for it all!  

MHTV:  What parallels are there between the time period the Clearys live in versus where we are now?

TD:  The anger in the public discourse was very similar to now, the social and political divide. I think now is worse, but only by a bit. In 1972 some of our beloved national leaders had recently been ASSASSINATED, and we watched it happen on live TV — as disorienting, scary and surreal as witnessing 9-11.

The Vietnam War had us divided. Nixon had us divided. Like today everyone was on a hair trigger of rage, exhilaration and frustration as we watched violent street protest and a presidency falling apart. Would our republic even survive? These are real questions we worried over then and are definitely revisiting today.

My father had terrible politics. But I loved and respected him. I loved my mom as well but she was suppressed and oppressed by the times, never becoming the fully realized person she certainly should have been. And watching the two of them struggle and puzzle through those turbulent years where everything they valued was suddenly up for grabs gave me the perspective to become — for good and for bad — the person and the artist I am today. 

MHTV:  Were you surprised the show didn't get picked up for season 2?  What were your plans for the family and their further experiences?

TD:  There were a number of warning signs along the way, but I was still absolutely flabbergasted with disbelief when ABC chose not to order a second season. In my mind — and I think there’s an objective case to be made for it — we were the BEST comedy on their schedule, CERTAINLY better than several of the shows with LOWER or absolutely comparable ratings which they chose to renew instead. I could not believe the choices they made.

I remember telling Karey Burke that she must possess a high threshold for embarrassment to keep several of the shitty shows she did and toss mine in a dumpster. (BTW this lack of diplomacy with my bosses might also have been a factor in getting my show canned.) In retrospect, our status on the network became much less secure as soon as Channing Dungey and Jamilla Hunter left ABC in December 2018, and were replaced by Dana Walden and Karey. A new creative team coming in always wants to prove itself with a sharp change of direction, and Kids was a leftover project of Channing’s. She had been our champion. Suddenly ABC was giving us fewer on-air promotions, our strong lead-in The Conners went away, and we found ourselves pre-empted to try out new shows in our time-slot. I should have seen the writing but I still naively thought that our superior quality would win the day.

In terms of season 2 and beyond, I have notebooks full of scribbled notions, things we just never got to in the first 23. And more stuff pops up every day — a glance at an old family album or seeing a retro commercial on the internet will send me instantly right back to 1972. The great thing about a series which comes out of your life is the deep story resources immediately at your disposal. Someone in the writers’ room asks, “Did Frank ever have a girlfriend?” or “Did your mom ever work outside the home?” or “Did Joey ever get in serious trouble with the law?” and you’re off to the races with memories of the funny, painful, real stories a family like mine experienced. I would LOVE to get to the REALLY GOOD stuff:  Timmy’s adolescence under Joey’s Bob Guccione-style tutelage and the tug-of-war I went through for years (am still going through?) between sex and my more childish passions, like magic, musical theater and puppetry!

MHTV:  Is there any chance, particularly if the show does well on Hulu, that it could come back?  And if it does, will you please change the spelling to "All Right?!" 

TD:  There’s always a chance. Just a year or two ago I would have scoffed. Dead is dead. Once a show has the stink of rejection on it no platform is going to risk the shame of associating itself with a proven failure.

But I can’t argue with the passion of our fans. They keep asking me for more — an animated cartoon, a comic book, a novel, a Halloween or a Christmas special. You have to think “never say never” these days. There is just sooooooo much TV and so so so many players with such a voracious appetite for content. Yes, I’ve moved on to other projects but I’m still scribbling in my notebooks ideas which I’d love to do on some future iteration of The Kids Are Alright. So wherever I end up next with my new series ideas — cable, streaming, network, Google Maps, the little TV built onto the gas pumps — if I find any further measure of TV success I’ll be looking to leverage that success into a revival of Kids taking place perhaps in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, reuniting that amazing cast and telling more stories from deep vault of my remarkable but also highly-typical American family. 

And yes, I’d be happy to change the “alright.” 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

You Will Love Love, Victor

Love, Victor, starring Michael Cimino as Creekwood High School's latest queer/questioning student,
 premieres Wednesday, June 17 on Hulu
In 2018, Love, Simon made big-screen history as Hollywood’s first gay teen romcom.  Based on Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film, adapted by This Is Us head-writing duo Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger and directed by gay powerhouse producer Greg Berlanti, ended up grossing $66.3 million in worldwide box office, against a production budget of $10-17 million, making it a bona fide hit – and deservedly so.

Having seen Love, Simon at least a half-dozen times since its release – it has become one of those films that, if I happen to come across it on TV or even on screen in a bar, I just drop everything, settle in and watch it to the end – I was both excited and maybe even a little nervous to hear that the film was being further adapted into a television series, Love, Victor.

Now, after viewing all ten episodes of Love, Victor’s first season (which drops on Hulu this Wednesday, June 17), I am not just pleasantly surprised, but thrilled by this expansion of the Simonverse.  The show has all the film’s best DNA, including literal links to the Simon characters we fell in love with, and yet expands the world of Creekwood with new, endearing, and more diverse characters.

Actually, I didn’t just “view” all ten episodes of Love, Victor; that word is way too casual for what my husband, Frank DeCaro, and I did that night last week.  We binged Love, Victor.  We devoured it.  And days and days later, we can’t stop thinking about it.  The show may be more literally aimed at a teen audience, to match its mostly teen characters; but for older viewers as well, gay or straight, it brilliantly brings you back to those moments in high school when decisions were tough, when the stakes were high, and when abject humiliation seemed imminent.

So if you’re like me, and immediately binge all ten roughly half-hour episodes in one sitting and are left in its particularly satisfying, cliffhanging end moments, you’ll be googling to find out what’s next for Victor and the entire Salazar family in Atlanta.  That’s why, in my interview with Love, Victor’s executive producer and showrunner Brian Tanen below, I start with mention of season two, and work my way back.

Love, Victor showrunner Brian Tanen
Must-Hear TV:  Here we are, just a few days before Love, Victor premieres on Hulu – and in what seems to be a big show of confidence on the part of the network, the show is already renewed for a second season.  At this moment, how far are you into writing season two?

Brian Tanen:  We have been at it for a few weeks. We're in the early to middle part of the season, coming up with ideas for what we might be headed, and it's really exciting. [With season one] it was incredibly exciting and meaningful experience to get to work on a show and a season about a kid really figuring out who he is and, and as we do within the LGBT community, having to come to terms with it and stop being afraid of it, start embracing it and eventually even feel pride for who you are.

That's really the journey of season one.  So season two is exciting, because it's all those things that happen next. Once you have figured out who you are, you have a whole range of experiences that you've been denying yourself. And so it's really wonderful to get to have a character who has figured things out and gets to experience first, love first heartbreaks, first sexual experiences  -- all the rich experiences that everyone has.

Must-Hear TV:  Yes, and I won’t give away the season one cliffhanger, but boy, did you leave us on a cliff!  

Brian Tanen:  It's a cliffhanger but it is also a really important, conclusive ending to the story of season one.

Ana Ortiz and James Martinez as Victor's parents, Isabel and Armando Salazar.
Previously, Ana has played the mother of a  gay son (Mark Indelicato) on Ugly Betty,
while James currently recurs as the father of a queer daughter
(Isabella Gomez) on Pop's One Day at a Time.

Must-Hear TV:  When you wrote that last scene of the first season, did you write beyond it, or even shoot further into the scene to use it in season 2?

Brian Tanen:  I think our feeling was that it was Victor's [Michael Cimino] journey.  And we knew that we didn't want to go past that. In the opening moments of the show, Victor tells the audience that his story is nothing like Simon's. And while we know [Victor’s parents] Isabel and Armando [Ana Ortiz and James Martinez] at this point of the season, and we know that they're crazy about their kid, we also know that they're more conservative, they're deeply religious, and we just know that it's going to be a more complicated journey ahead for Victor.

One of Armando's first questions is where in the new Atlanta
apartment to hang the crucifix.

Must-Hear TV:  What was your first experience with the “Simonverse” or the Creekwood universe?  Did you read the book?  Had you seen the movie?  How did you get involved with Love, Victor?

Nick Robinson in Love, Simon,
 released in 2018.  Nick is one
of the producers of Love, Victor.
Brian Tanen:  I came to the project originally as a fan. I had seen the movie and loved it.  Then Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, who wrote the film and created this series, met with me early on in the process to talk about how they wanted to adapt it from film to television, and they pitched out for me, what their take was on expanding the universe of Creekwood and how the new story would be connected to Simon from the film, and I thought it was such a brilliant take. I absolutely adored the movie. But I understood some of the conversation about the fact that Simon had this idealized experience.  The fact that so much of LGBT representation is always focused on white characters. The fact that Simon's family was so accepting, and wealthy, it just seemed like that character came from a certain amount of privilege. And there was certainly an opportunity to tell a different story here, which really excited me.

Must-Hear TV:  In the structure of the show, Victor writes to Simon in each episode for advice.  In season two, will we see Victor pay it forward to someone else?

Brian Tanen:  I won't give any spoilers for season two, but I know on the writers’ room wish list we would love for Victor to not be alone as an LGBT student at Creekwood. I know we'd love to be more queer characters to populate our world.

Must-Hear TV:  When you start with a movie, how do you expand its world to add in more story for secondary characters?  Love, Simon had some great moments for supporting characters, but obviously with a series you have more time for that.  What were some of the conscious ways that you made Victor's world a little bigger than Simon’s had been?

Rachel Hilson as Victor's girlfriend, Mia
Brian Tanen:  One of my favorite parts about the show is that Victor isn't the only person dealing with secrets or problems. You learn over the course of the season about the personal problems of Mia [Rachel Hilson], Felix [Anthony Turpel] and Lake [Bebe Wood].  Everybody, especially teenage characters, is dealing with their own problems and their own secrets. And so it was a joy to be able to explore their lives and tell their stories, as well. And we have such a incredible cast of young actors. Each one of them to me feels like a little find.  So you just kind of wanted to live in their world and find out more and more about them.

Isabella Ferreira as Victor's sister, Pilar
Must-Hear TV:  As is Isabella Ferreira, who plays Victor’s sister, Pilar.  It feels like every one of those characters had his or her own moment of coming-out, not necessariliy as queer, but there was the same process of opening up and showing vulnerability.

Brian Tanen:  Yeah, I think that's exactly right. Even the parents are somewhat “closeted” about the things that are happening in their lives. The parents have this big secret, too, and that sort of explodes in the early to middle part of the season.

Must-Hear TV:  What was the thought process behind Victor's ethnicity? How did his family come to be Latinx?

Brian Tanen:  I think there was a concerted effort to tell a different story than Simon's from the film.  In queer representation, there’s often a focus on young, white men.  And we felt that a coming-out journey would be different through the lens of a non-white character.  And we were lucky to have a wonderful writing staff that was highly LGBT-forward and Latinx-forward, and as a result, we were able to pull from people's individual experiences so that the stories would be as authentic as they could be.

Anthony Turpel as Felix and Michael Cimino
 as Victor -- or is this "Velix?"
Must-Hear TV:  I’ve been contacted by people on twitter who are already ‘shipping different combinations of characters – I have one person asking me about “Velix” – and I don’t want to confirm or deny that that’s what happens.  But how did you decide the beats for Victor’s love story?  After Love, Simon, how do you tell another teen gay male love story differently?  It seems like there are only so many romcom tropes at your disposal.

Mason Gooding as jock and part-time
 antagonist, Andrew
Brian Tanen:  I have also seen the tweets where people are ‘shipping Victor and Felix, and they're ‘shipping Felix and Andrew [Mason Gooding], and there's an assumption that every character on the show will be queer.  And I find that so endearing!  Fans are guessing who's going to get together. And while a lot of it is not quite right, I do think there are individual little love stories within the season, some of which are platonic. But that those pairings are still ‘shippable, if you know what I mean, right?  I find Victor and Felix's relationship one of the most endearing of the entire show.  

George Sear as Creekwood's resident
out  student/barista/guitarist, Benji
In terms of telling a different teen gay love story, I think the story of Love, Simon was an untraditional romantic comedy in that it was two people who are missing each other the entire time, and didn’t know each other's identity. Love, Victor has some of the romcom DNA, but there's this doomed love triangle situation happening. We, the audience, are probably aware that this is not really going to work. But we also understand that there's real love there. And then there's Benji [George Sear], who is more like a fantasy all season, this ideal who makes Victor's heart go pitter patter.  I think in future seasons, all of that fantasy stuff kind of becomes real. There's actually a lot of story opportunity.

Must-Hear TV: What would this show have meant to you when you were a teenager? And turn that into a pitch for why teenagers should watch, and why adults should watch.

Brian Tanen:  I can't think of another show on television that has a young gay protagonist. So, for any teenager seeing this story, which has so much heart and affirmation and joy – well it’s funny that I get emotional thinking about it again, but you use it.  We would tell these stories in the writers’ room about things that happened to us in high school or, or what we wish had happened, and then we would get to put them in the show. So I think for any teenager who is struggling with these issues, to be able to see themselves represented on screen and represented in a way with heart and joy will just be an absolute breath of fresh air.  And for parents and really anyone else, the show is just incredibly charming and inclusive, and it will cure your summertime blues.  We're going through really turbulent times right now. The show has a message of love.  I feel like it’s kind of right what the doctor ordered right now.

Must-Hear TV:  I know it was obviously deliberate that the show would debut in June for Pride month, but who knew that we’d also be going through such turmoil as a country, and that the show could be a balm.

Brian Tanen:  We talk a lot in the writers’ room about how LGBTQ rights as we know them were largely born out of the Stonewall riots, and how that movement was championed and led by black trans activists.  So we feel a great deal of solidarity with what's happening in the country right now.  And I think the show hopefully feels like a show about inclusivity and equality and wanting to make the world a better place.

Must-Hear TV:  What I like about Victor is that he takes action to make his world better.  So many of the protagonists from the teen movies I knew were more passive, like Molly Ringwald waiting in the window for Jake to show up.  But there are a few moments in this season where Victor really takes a chance.

Brian Tanen:  Who amongst us hasn't been in a situation where you are close to the person you have a crush on?  And it feels like something might happen, but neither person is brave enough to make that move. But in our wish-fulfillment version, Victor goes for it.  For the writers, there was a lot of feeling like, “if only we could rewrite our own histories, and be braver.”  And even though it takes him a while, Victor does become a brave character.

Must-Hear TV:  Speaking of wish-fulfillment in looking back, do you think you will hear from older LGBT people who say, “If only I’d been more like Victor?”

Bebe Wood as Creekwood classmate Lake
Brian Tanen:  When Love, Simon came out, I noticed my Facebook feed was filled with comments from gay friends of mine, adults who had gone to see this film and absolutely loved it. And even though it’s about teenagers and is geared largely to a younger audience, a lot of LGBT adults didn't have that sort of romcom experience, so they still have an appetite for it, and still have a desire to see a younger generation have this moment.  So I'm hopeful that this will resonate with with adults as well.

Must-Hear TV:  What can you tell us about Season Two?  Because I'm sure there are going to be a lot of people like me who devour season one within one day and want to know more.

Brian Tanen:  Well, one thing I think I can say is that I think people are aware that the show had originally been written for Disney+, and then was eventually moved over to Hulu.  And now the reality of having our season two on Hulu provides so many opportunities to see these characters grow up. The writers on our staff, especially the gay writers, knew that one of the major problems with the representation of LGBTQ characters in media is that we're allowed to exist as long as we are not very sexual, if we're the funny friend, or the sidekick, but you rarely see narratives centered around characters who are have their own desires and crushes and sex lives. And so, now that we're on Hulu, that's something that I know we are all excited to write about, teenagers going through their first sexual experiences.  And what that looks like in 2020 when you're an LGBTQ teen.

Must-Hear TV:  So basically, thanks to Hulu, now you can be a little more risqué?

Brian Tanen:  I think we could be.  I think season two will be even sexier.

Love, Victor season 1 (10 episodes) premieres on Hulu on Wednesday, June 17.