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The cast of "Trinity"

Marvin Kitman

'Trinity' shines through Irish stereotypes

Web posted on: Thursday, October 22, 1998 2:15:27 PM EDT

NEW YORK -- A major trend this season is programs about Irish-American families. Not since St. Patrick's Day have there been so many sons and daughters of the old sod parading on TV. It's amazing how this happens all of a sudden, almost as if a wee person makes the rounds of all the networks whispering "The Irish are coming, the Irish are coming."

Not everybody is happy about the Irish-Are-In trend.

"I wish Irish was out," declared Paul T. McSloy of Massapequa, New York. "Where do you suggest I hold my 'Million Gaels Marching' protest against tired, old stereotypes?"

Stereotyping is what TV does best. The Irish-American families portrayed this fall at least are not Kennedy lookalikes, as were "The Monroes" (1995) on ABC, but working class, salt-of-the-earth stereotypes, with long-suffering mothers, fathers with poor communication skills and large families whose members work for "the finest" in neighborhoods like South Boston and New York's Hell's Kitchen. Everybody talks and drinks -- a lot.

The season of Irish stereotype

So far, there has been "Costello," the just-canceled Tuesday-night sitcom on Fox about the hard life of Sue Murphy (played by stand-up comic Sue Costello), who worked as a barmaid in Southie. Sue wanted to rise above her saloon filled with local louts. She was one of those barmaids with a foul tongue in a sitcom filled with flatulence jokes and single-entendre wit. But as a comedy, "Costello" needed, as Lara Kelley of East Patchogue, New York, advised, "Abbott!"

"To Have & To Hold" on CBS (Wednesday nights at 9 -- check local listings) is not a great day for the Irish, either. It's a so-called "romantic comedy drama" about the family McGrail, who also live in Beantown. Sean McGrail (Jason Beghe) is a cop. He has two kid brothers on the force, Michael and Patrick (Jason Wiles and Stephen Lee), whom he calls Starsky and Hutch. Another brother is with the fire department.

The premise is that Sean is in love with the girl next door, Annie Cornell (Moira Kelly), who happens to be a public defender whose cases too often are intertwined with detective Sean's to be believable. In between sorting out their love lives and family problems, the McGrails pack away a lot of brewskis. In the premiere, the eldest brother gives this definition in court of how much he had to drink on a night in question: "More than a pint and less than a keg." I would give this show a breathalyzer test.

The most stereotypical character of the year is Mother McGrail. Fiona, played by Fionnula Flanagan, has a brogue that will shake, rattle and roll your back teeth. One can see why her husband Robert McGrail (John Cullum) seems to spend all his time in the garage building model ships.

'Trinity' truly must-see

The newest of the Irish-American family shows is "Trinity" on NBC (Friday nights at 9 -- check local listings). This is the show that screams of cultural importance, as the promos have suggested for months: "From the people who gave you `ER,'" they proclaimed.

The truth is, the promos are right. This is a very good show, the best of the Irish-American dramas, a truly must-see series that enriches TV, especially on Friday nights.

Of course, it's a soap opera. But one of the better kind. Isn't Eugene O'Neill soap opera?

Produced by John Wells, who did "China Beach" before "ER" and created by Matthew McNair Carnahan, it's an hour-long drama about the McCallisters, an Irish-Catholic family living in Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side. The tightly knit McCallister clan consists of five young adult siblings in a variety of professions. Another died at 15, under mysterious circumstances. It was six kids and one bathroom in a typical railroad tenement.

The neighborhood is in flux. "All the guys are either dead or gone to prison, and the yuppies have moved in," one survivor explains in the premiere. As a couple of founding yuppies, my wife and I lived on 47th and Ninth in the 1950s, but got the hell out of there as soon as we could. I didn't recognize the old neighborhood, not that they show much of it.

But I liked the McCallister family in a New York minute.

The characters

Mother Eileen McAllister (Jill Clayburgh) and father Simon McAllister (John Spencer), who works for the MTA, are working hard at holding the brood together.

Bobby the cop (Justin Louis) has just been bumped up to detective. He'd been up in the Bronx but has been re-assigned to the precinct in his old neighborhood.

He is in continual conflict with brother Liam (Sam Trammell), who has a new job as a business agent with the construction union, which Bobby thinks is crooked. Liam may be working with thugs, but he has a good heart.

Kevin (Tate Donovan) is the priest, an unorthodox man of the cloth, who could have served the parish in "Nothing Sacred." He's the rock for the family and the parish; he coaches basketball, intervenes in friends' lives where he always learns that no good deed goes unpunished.

Fiona (Charlotte Ross), the older sister, is a certified yuppie, a successful Wall Street bond trader. She grew up watching the limos in the neighborhood waiting for the theater crowd and dreamed of some day being inside. She has made it and is miserable.

The youngest, Amanda (Bonnie Root), is the lost soul of the family. A hippie, she drinks too much, can never get her act together, and by the second episode is really in hot water.

The McCallisters gather for Sunday dinners, no matter what else has happened the previous week. The series is basically about what happens on Monday. By the second family dinner, I am at the table with them. The show really hooked me. It's about family relationships, which are universal.

Despite the soapy nature, as with other Wells shows, it has intensity in the writing. The cast is superb, a quality repertory company. There are none of the flat notes of "To Have & To Hold."

"Trinity" is a superior program, a life-on-the-streets show that could be the best since "EZ Streets" but much more accessible. Stereotypical, yes, but involving and easier to relate to, nevertheless. Stereotypes often come from reality. The show is so good it wouldn't hurt to light a candle for "Trinity" even before it starts.

Kitman is the television critic for New York Newsday. His column appears regularly on CNN Interactive's Entertainment section. E-mail Kitman at

(c) 1998, Newsday Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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