This ABC sitcom makes telling a story with 10 regular characters look easy.
Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 9 through 15 is “Christmas 1972,” the eighth episode of the first season of ABC’s The Kids Are Alright.
Permit me to geek out for a second.
One of the tricks that single-camera sitcoms — those more movie-like shows, which aren’t filmed in front of a live studio audience (think The Good Place or Black-ish or Modern Family) — have up their sleeves that their more stage-bound cousins don’t have is their ability to really go for broke with visual gags if they want to.
Because they’re not confined to the same handful of sets that they use week after week after week, and because they don’t have to stage everything for the audience at home and the audience watching on the soundstage, they can take their time setting up intricate jokes that only work because of their visuals. And yet so few single-camera comedies take advantage of this particular ace in the hole.
But here I was watching the latest episode of The Kids Are Alright, ABC’s freshman sitcom about a large, Irish-Catholic family living in 1970s LA, and much of what made its final moments so funny was entirely visual.
There was a kid, isolated in the extreme background of a wide shot, so over a dozen other characters’ attention could turn to focus on him. And he was even swathed in the shadows of a garage, so that when he started to walk forward — his incriminating tap shoes tap, tap, tapping away — he stepped literally into the light. It wasn’t just a funny gag on the page. It was a funny gag when staged onscreen.
And that might be part of why Kids is a cut above the year’s other new comedies.
The challenge of The Kids Are Alright: Keep 10 whole characters onscreen for most of many episodes’ running time
The challenge The Kids Are Alright faces should seem pretty obvious on its face: With two parents and eight kids — all sons, ranging from small baby to college-aged — the show has to find a way to distinguish those characters. But that’s true not just at the level of casting (where ABC’s typically ace comedy casting department has found another fleet of precociously funny young actors) and the level of writing (where the eight brothers have been given very different personalities) but also on the level of direction.
Put it this way: When you have episodes like “Christmas 1972,” which typically involve all 10 of the family members in the same room as each other (to say nothing of the episode’s big guest stars, who include Nat Faxon as a bachelor uncle), the director (in this case sitcom vet Randall Einhorn) has to find a way to stage scenes so that we can not only see the characters who are most important to those scenes, but also so that we can see everybody else reacting. That’s hard enough to do with four or five people; imagine doubling it.
But The Kids Are Alright clears this bar far more often than not. The final shot I called out above works both because young Timmy (Jack Gore, playing the series’ point-of-view character, while the show’s narration, by showrunner and creator Tim Doyle, is ostensibly from Timmy’s adult self) is so isolated from everybody else, and because Einhorn has left himself so many places and people for his camera to cut to.
That might be over to the disapproving faces of his parents (who suddenly realize where their son got the money needed to buy tap shoes, of all things), or over to the other brothers who are gob-smacked that Great Aunt Martha gave Timmy $100 for Christmas instead of just $5, or over to Timmy’s brother Eddie (Caleb Foote), who also mistakenly found himself receiving $100 from Martha. (He used it to buy his girlfriend a suede jacket, and she, too, is in the shot, so Einhorn can cut in closer on her to show off her new duds to comedic effect.)
I’m talking so much about the visuals here because when I first reviewed The Kids Are Alright, I worried about just how well the show would be able to distinguish between 10 different characters — to say nothing of major guest stars like Faxon and Kennedy Lea Slocum (who plays Eddie’s girlfriend, Wendi). But in subsequent episodes, Doyle and his writers have developed the characters as individuals with almost surgical precision, so that by the time Christmas rolls around, we’ve gotten to know all of them in a way that lets final gags like that last scene play out perfectly.
It’s also worth noting that The Kids Are Alright’s specificity to its time and place is a big part of why it works so well. “Christmas 1972” doesn’t reinvent the sitcom Christmas episode, but it also doesn’t try to. (How could it? There have been thousands of sitcom Christmas episodes.) Instead, it grounds its story in the very particular anxiety of being one kid out of eight during a holiday that’s supposed to conclude with kids getting everything they could ever want.
But it deals as well with the consternation that paterfamilias Mike (Michael Cudlitz) feels when looking at his brother-in-law, Tom (Faxon), whose carefree, childless lifestyle is symbolized by the comically large new van he steers into the family’s driveway on Christmas morning. (Great Aunt Martha and Great Uncle Walter pile out of the back in a haze of cigarette smoke.)
And with the worry that Eddie feels when he realizes he was — oh no! — supposed to buy his girlfriend a present. (She seems completely unconvinced when he tries to lie his way out of not having one for her — a nice touch.) And with oldest brother Lawrence’s snide dismissals of commercialism. And, and, and.
All of these stories are timeless tales of Christmas and family gatherings. But they’re also driven by a very specific sense of 1970s America as a place where these issues were heightened by a shifting population, by a world where taking to the road in your oversized van and never marrying or having kids increasingly seemed like worthwhile propositions.
And while there are certainly times when the show does too much with the idea of how much things have changed since the ‘70s, I’ve come to accept I’m one of the only people alive who doesn’t enjoy that sort of humor. The Kids Are Alright’s characters, the stories, and jokes are all on point. Add a hefty dollop of visual humor, and you have a treat — and one of my favorite new shows of the fall.
The Kids Are Alright airs Tuesdays at 8:30 pm Eastern on ABC, with previous episodes streaming on Hulu. And fear not — it’s been picked up for a full first season, so it will be on the air through the spring.