“Sitcom kid” is a term used derisively — a child who’s phony-seeming, coached, a little too “on” in a way that makes you resent their parents and fear for their future abilities to adapt in the face of adversity. In their voices, you can hear the hundreds of hours of practicing “Tomorrow” from Annie, or “Where Is Love?” from Oliver. Eesh.
Mercifully, over the last few years, that’s fallen out of fashion — partially because there were simply fewer family-set comedies on TV, partially just because character and actor styles come and go. Shows like Louie helped usher in the non-precocious kid style; sure, the two young actresses who play Louie’s daughters are terrific, but they’re not that saccharine weird-cute of an early eighties sitcom kid. And this new season pushes things a little further: We’re in the era of awesome kid weirdos. They’re quirky, they’re themselves, they have talents and shortcomings, and they’re all just a little bit offbeat.
The stand-out kids of the season are the two boys on Trophy Wife: Ryan Lee as middle child Warren and Albert Tsai as youngest son Bert. (You might also recognize Lee as the tween Leslie Mann screamed at in This Is 40.) Warren is the easily excitable doof, who’s terrible with vocabulary words but hugely enthusiastic about just about everything else — including, say, organizing Legos with his half-brother Bert. Warren’s mom is an intense type-A doctor (Marcia Gay Harden, as Bradley Whitford’s first ex-wife), but Bert’s mom is the loopy hippie (Michaela Watkins, Whitford’s second ex), though everyone seems to get along pretty well. Trophy gets compared to Modern Family a lot, and in that sense, Warren and Bert are both Mannys. They’re passionate oddballs, people to whom perhaps the outside world will be unkind. These characters — Warren and Bert, but Manny too — are themselves funny, but we also learn a lot about their respective family dynamics by how accepting and supportive everyone around them seems. Are their parents sometimes perplexed? Sure, but it’s never cruel or dismissive. On Trophy Wife, the brothers’ appeal eclipses that of older sister Hillary (Bailee Madison), who’s written as a more textbook Salty, Organized, Brainy Teenage Girl. Maybe as the season goes on, we’ll see more depth or intrigue from her.
On Mom, there’s a similar dynamic: The older sister character feels more like a stock player, while the younger brother is a lot more engaging. Teenage Violet (Sadie Calvano) is newly pregnant — part of this fall’s exhausting teen-mom trend — though it seems like she’d be just as acerbic in a non-gestational state. Her little brother Roscoe (Blake Garrett Rosenthal from Bridesmaids and New Girl), though, is more dimensional. Initially it seemed like he was going to be a tiny nerd kid, the sort of smartypants character shoehorned in to roll his eyes at his dumb-dumb parents. (Say…Alex on Modern Family.) Instead, Roscoe can be both a little nerdy and a little kid-silly, like when he tries to get out of brushing his teeth by vowing to brush twice as long tomorrow, or confesses to having worn the same underwear for several days in a row. Again, Roscoe serves as the focal point of his family’s ability to feel and express tenderness: Both mom (Anna Faris) and grandma (Allison Janney) are recovering alcoholics, his dad Baxter (Matt Jones) is only sort of in the picture, and his sister resents the neglect she suffered owing to her mother’s addiction. But everyone has a soft spot for Roscoe, and he brings out the gentleness on what can be a sort of harsh show.
And in the most striking example of rad but off-the-beaten-path kids bringing out gentleness from harshness, there’s the just-finished MasterChef Junior. Kids between the ages of 9 and 13 competed for judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot; after years of watching Ramsay gleefully insult chefs (nothing will ever top “panini head,” but he’s tried), it’s refreshing — and genuinely surprising — to watch him be so supportive of young chefs. He’s not mean to them, though the young contestants seem very aware that he could be. And the children on MCJ are fantastic home chefs, with skills vastly eclipsing any sort of ordinary childhood interest in cooking. Honestly, their skills eclipse most adults’ interests in cooking. They improvise snail soups and rely on their go-to toffee pudding recipes, and when the going gets really tough, the infamously sour Ramsay comes over and tenderly helps them. It’s kinda great.
These shows didn’t invent awesome weirdos, and current shows like The Middle have been exploring quirky kid characters for a solid five seasons. Maybe this repetition will get tiresome, and we’ll yearn for the days of Stephanie Tanner. But I doubt it.