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.”