Moone Boy debuted on Hulu earlier this week. New episodes will debut weekly.
As an actor, Chris O’Dowd is the opposite of a showboat. Although O’Dowd has become something of a specialist in playing nice guys who have to overcome their own shyness and insecurity, he’s secure enough in his own relaxed charm that he doesn’t have to raise his voice and fight for the viewer’s attention, and he’s generous: He spent most of his starring role in Family Treeseeming to enjoy the wild flights of fancy his co-stars got to take off on, while patiently waiting for his romantic partner to show up so his own storyline could really get started. (He may have been more patient about it than some of the people watching the show.) In the British series turned “Hulu Original” Moone Boy, which O’Dowd created and co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Nick Vincent Murphy, he plays the self-described “imaginary friend of an idiot boy in the west of Ireland.”
It’s 1989, and the boy is Martin Moone (David Rawle), a dreamy lad who lives in a cramped house with his parents and three older sisters. The time frame, which allows for plot lines inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the election of Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female President, is also the first clue that this comedy of childhood is semi-autobiographical, O’Dowd’s Everybody Hates Chris. But with O’Dowd in the role of imaginary friend, it’s also his Calvin And Hobbes, with O’Dowd playing the tiger. For 98% of the comic actors in the business who might be able to get such a thing funded, this would be the chance to play a wild, surreal character and indulge in a lot of costume changes and weird behavior, maybe even get all daringly transgressive, à laWilfred. But O’Dowd and Murphy deal in character comedy, and the whole point of Martin’s character is that, although he has an imagination—he draws cartoons, which we get to see animated, with the horizontal lines of his notebook paper intact—he’s fundamentally a seriously-minded, mild-mannered child, whose idea of a fantasy friend is a tall, neatly bearded man in a suit. If anyone could see the two of them walking together, they’d think the kid was talking to his tax attorney. (He’s called Sean Murphy, precisely because it’s about the most typical name an Irish kid could come up with.)
Except for an episode in which Sean Murphy is briefly replaced in Martin’s affections by a visiting uncle and goes to hang out in a pub with some other “rejected imaginary friends,” O’Dowd never takes center stage by himself; he’s there to support David Rawle, just as Sean Murphy is there to help support and advise Martin when he has problems. Like Calvin And Hobbes, Moone Boy respects the child-imaginary playmate relationship while being true to the reality of it: Sean Murphy is often skeptical about Martin’s schemes and notions, but being a product of the boy’s imagination, he isn’t any more knowledgeable than he is.
This limits his effectiveness as a sounding board when Martin is trying to deal with something like his first erection, which is triggered by a shampoo commercial. Sean suggests that it “may be an allergy thing” and advises Martin to “Maybe get yourself a bag of frozen peas. Or a small rock hammer.” (He also serves as narrator, introducing new characters, such as Francie “Touchy” Feelie, an overly physically affectionate fish merchant played by Steve Coogan—”a rich, uncomplicated tool”—and the chief enforcer at Martin’s school, Declan Mannion, who is “feared and respected in equal measure, a bully’s bully.” He takes the other kids’ money and uses it to bet on dog races, but if he wins, he repays them, with interest.)
Moone Boy doesn’t caricature the adults in this family circus, or expose them to easy ridicule, as do even some of the best American comedies about children and adolescents (like Awkward). As Martin’s parents, Deidre O’Kane and Peter McDonald are weary but not defeated, frequently confused but never stupid. The show regards them with affectionate understanding even when they’re trying to sabotage their daughter’s final exams so they won’t have to come through with the reward they promised her if she finished at the top of her class. (It even regards “Touchy” Feelie, who contributes financially to the local campaign for Mary Robinson while referring to her supporters as “the Sufragettes,” with affectionate understanding. Sean Murphy concedes that “his bonhomie might have been more welcome had he not always borne the fresh scent of gutted mackerel.”)
The most emotionally complex episode is the one about Uncle Danny (Steve Wall), a busker who dresses like the cover of Bob Dylan’s first album, and who seems glamorous to his nephew for the same qualities that make him an irritant and an embarrassment to Martin’s brother. He turns out not to be exactly as advertised, and when Martin’s father denies himself the cheap satisfaction of outing Danny to Martin and disillusioning the boy, it’s a small act of domestic heroism. Moone Boy might be rooted in the observation by James Joyce (another great Irish comedian) that anyone who manages to support a family at all is worthy of some respect.
The show is also rooted in the fact that, even for an Irishman, it’s true that more people hear the call to the wild side than have the reckless courage to follow it. On their last day of primary school, Martin and his friend Padraic (Ian O’Reilly) plot about how to commemorate the occasion with an unforgettable act of mayhem. Possible suggestions include strangling the school nurse and using the toilet all day without flushing, “then blowing it up.” But when Martin actually sees the banner bidding his class farewell, his true nature takes over, and he becomes wistful and nostalgic: He doesn’t really want to leave his childhood. “I feel like I’m losing a limb,” he wails. “The one in my heart!” (Meanwhile, the scene around him looks like a junior production of the prison riot in Natural Born Killers.) Moone Boy manages to remain sweet-natured and true to its characters while being spirited and funny for six episodes, which is no mean feat. (A second season has been broadcast in Britain, with a third on the way.) It leaves most of what passes for domestic TV comedy choking in its dust.
- When Martin’s father brings out his gift-wrapped birthday present, Sean Murphy expresses his shock—and tips the audience off that this is not a child who’s used to be pampered—at what it seems to be: “No! Surely they haven’t gotten you something decent. It must be a bicycle-shaped sock.”
- Brief glimpses of the family around Martin provide hints of what raising three daughters might be like, and some of the ways in which raising Martin might be a relief, especially for the father. When one of the girls asks him if there are any napkins around, he, trying to be sophisticated about these things, gingerly asks if she means sanitary napkins. “Yeah, Dad, I want to wipe off my makeup with a tampon!”
- Dad goes to a neighbor to complain that his sons have been bullying Martin, and winds up joining an informal support group composed of local fathers who are dismayed at what little shits their kids have turned out to be. The father invites him for a cup of tea: “Did I say tea? I meant gin.”
- The campaign posters for Mary Robinson’s male opponent carry the line, “A GOOD MAN FOR IRELAND.” I don’t feel like researching it myself right now, but I’d love to know if this is on the level.
- Mom and Dad consider turning on the TV to watch the celebrations in Berlin when the wall has come down. Dad: “David Hasselhoff is performing.” Mom: “Price of freedom.”