[This post contains details from the Real O’Neals episode that aired March 2]
The O’Neals are a family you’ve seen before: The fivesome consists of a happily married couple heavily involved in the local church scene and three content, accomplished kids. Jimmy’s a star wrestler, Kenny’s an academic rule-follower, and Shannon spends her time collecting money for charity. In other words, cardboard cutouts are more exciting than this family.
But those aren’t the real O’Neals. No, the real O’Neals are in shambles. That happily married couple? They’re getting a divorce. The star wrestler? He’s anorexic. Shannon’s collection of funds? She’s been stealing the money to buy a car off Craigslist. And Kenny? He’s gay.
Those things aren’t revealed until the episode’s end when the family has an impromptu confession session. It’s clear that it’s aiming to be edgy, to say, “Hey, we’re on network TV and look what we’re doing!” Sometimes this pays off, like the charming, frantic moment Kenny realizes he needs to come out after his girlfriend tries to pressure him into having sex. Other times it comes off as tacky and insensitive, like the multiple times Jimmy’s eating disorder becomes the butt of the joke. A masculine jock can’t possibly struggle with body image, the show seems to say. Let’s laugh at how ridiculous that is!
When news of the show first broke this past spring, several religious groups attempted to halt the ABC comedy’s existence after learning that The Real O’Neals would follow a teenage boy coming out to his Irish Catholic family. The show is neither conservative enough to calm those groups — it’s definitely less G-rated than you might expect from a family sitcom, like when Kenny grapples with his sexuality as he debates putting on a condom — nor shocking enough to surprise those who didn’t rally for the show’s cancellation.
And that’s fine: The pilot is all about presenting a picture-perfect family and then tearing that picture apart to indicate that everything isn’t always as it seems, a solid set-up for a first episode — and a motif that likely won’t last. Now that everything’s out in the open, the family’s going to be confronting with how to deal with it all, territory with plenty of comic possibilities. Maybe Jimmy will take the spotlight in a thoughtful episode about eating disorders; maybe Kenny will have some uncomfortable adventures dating dudes for the very first time; maybe their mom will re-evaluate her relationship with Jesus now that her kids aren’t as saintly as she previously thought.
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Even if future plotlines bomb, The Real O’Neals still has a mostly stellar cast to keep it afloat. Martha Plimpton is amusingly manic as the church-loving Eileen, reclaiming her role as a standout television mom after frequently stealing scenes on Raising Hope until its 2014 conclusion, and Mad Men alum Jay R. Ferguson embodies the perfect balance of goofy and gentle. As for the kids, Noah Galvin as Kenny is both the star in the sense that the show revolves around him and also in the sense that his bright energy is infectious without being overwhelming, a quality that makes him one of the more likable (and entertaining) fictional teenagers on TV. Together, these three — plus the other two kids — make up a recognizable group of (mostly) lovable messes.
If you’re looking for an ABC sitcom that challenges media norms like network siblings Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish, this show likely won’t satisfy that craving. But if you’re looking for a sometimes sentimental, sometimes silly half-hour about a family trying out honesty — and, as a result, acceptance — for the first time, the O’Neals are your guys.
We wrote a react for the Real O’Neals premiere, which means we’ll just be checking in occasionally, but if this is a show you’d like to read about each week, please let us know! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback and suggestions.