I will let you all decide if a show set in the 1970s about an Irish-Catholic family (based on the life of creator Tim Doyle) is a sitcom that you want to be watching right now. For what it is, it’s very good, but what it is — another show about a white, working-class family — may understandably have no appeal for you.
I was drawn to it because of Mary McCormack (West Wing, lots of other things) and especially Michael Cudlitz, a favorite character actor of mine mostly due to his work on the phenomenal and underappreciated Southland (he was also good in The Walking Dead). They play Peggy and Mike Cleary, the mother and father of the chaotic family of eight boys, and Cudlitz has already proven to be excellent in the role of a gruff and stubborn Dad who is nevertheless amenable to the will of his children (think Irish Murray Goldberg without the whiplash poignancy). He’s a machinist in a factory and a Nixon supporter, but he’s not inflexible, and I appreciate how he gently subverts the trope by actually listening to his wife and kids. He has his beliefs, but he’s not the guy who thinks he has all the answers.
Peggy has the dedication to her family of Beverly Goldberg, but the practical, no-nonsense attitude of Jessica Huang in Fresh off the Boat. She’s got too many kids, not enough time to coddle any of them, and her job seems to be to minimize the fires while allowing her kids to find their own way. She also delivers the best lines (“we don’t have the wherewithal in this family for any of you kids to be special, and thank goodness you mostly turned out to be uninteresting like [your older brother] here.”
Twenty-two minutes is hardly enough time to get to know all eight of the boys, but the middle-child, Timmy Cleary, is clearly the centerpiece, based on creator Tim Doyle (writer Better Off Ted, Ellen, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Sports Night, etc.) — he’s the “artistic” one who gets lost in the shuffle of the family chaos and has to create his own opportunities. That includes — in the pilot episode — sneaking off to “Hollyweird” and auditioning for a play against his mother’s wishes. This is straight out of the sitcom playbook, where the parent shows up to the audition to pull her child out, only to realize during the audition that he actually has some talent, but I appreciated the turn this one took. Peggy doesn’t pull Timmy out of the play but neither does she give him the “I’m sorry I doubted you” speech. She walks out of the audition and lets Timmy find his way home himself. She doesn’t have time to tend to his needs or chauffeur him around to practices, but Peggy decides that she’s going to be supportive by not getting in his way. It’s the opposite of helicopter parenting, but it’s no less loving, and Peggy also understands that Timmy has seven other brothers to look out for him. While they fight and bicker and rat each other out, they also have each others’ backs.
Much of the pilot deals with the decision of the eldest son, Lawrence (Sam Straley), to drop out of the seminary, in part because he’s got a girlfriend and in part, because he just wants to find himself. That’s where Cudlitz’ Mike comes in, and he could’ve been the Chris Cooper-like father who yells at his son and says that if he’s out of the seminary, he’s out of the family. However, he admits that while he got excited about his son joining the seminary, he ultimately allows that all he really wants is what’s best for his son, whether that’s in the seminary or not. “I want my son reaching for the stars.”
There’s a lot going on in the pilot episode, and a lot to cram in, but with The Goldbergs covering the ’80s and Fresh Off the Boat the ’90s, ABC seemed hellbent on tackling the ’70s, and the early goings suggest that it’s a strong gap-filler between The Wonder Years (to which this show owes a great debt) and The Goldbergs, a funny and sweet show but not too saccharine (and in the pilot episode, at least, not reliant on pop culture references or ’70s soundtrack songs as crutches).
Header Image Source: ABC