The Real O'Neals producers on Kenny's post-breakup fantasy sequence
Tuesday’s episode of The Real O’Neals, “The Real Heartbreak,” saw Kenny go through his first breakup, and things get very dramatic very quickly largely because his split comes just in time for Valentine’s Day. He listens to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” over and over (and over) again and even imagines himself in the music video. So yes, he’s extremely emotional but does eventually make it through.
Here to go behind Kenny’s healing process and fantasy sequence, and tease what’s to come for the rest of the season, are creators and showrunners Casey Johnson and David Windsor.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this music video parody come about, and what is your approach to fantasy sequences?
CASEY JOHNSON: One thing we love about the show are the fantasy sequences. It really gets into Kenny’s inner world. We’d been tracking this whole journey of Kenny’s romantic life through these two seasons and we’ve had some amazing fantasy sequences. To show his excitement when he’s on his first date, there was a big dance number to The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” which was awesome. We had to have an equally amazing one for his first heartbreak and we were thinking of all the gut-wrenching songs that we loved from the ’90s that kind of let you revel in your pain and Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” was at the top of our list.
DAVID WINDSOR: When we first came up with the show last year we were like, how do we tell this kid’s story and his experience about coming out when he hasn’t come out to anyone? Who is he going to talk to about these things that are going on in his life? This is a sort of interesting way to do it. If we can do it through his fantasies, that might be a way for us to show what’s happening in his mind and that’s sort of the genesis. Then, we realized it was an opportunity to have a lot of fun with him and what’s going on inside his 16-year-old brain.
JOHNSON: What we discovered, too, is that Noah Galvin is amazing at video parodies. We did “Physical,” Olivia Newton-John, and he was just incredible, so we really wanted to do it again, and he delivers.
The parody looks so much like the original music video. What was the process like of recreating that? It’s so dated, so I imagine it was s fun to lean into the cliches of the time.
WINDSOR: We got really lucky because the director of this episode, Kevin Bray, had a long history of directing music videos, so it was sort of a perfect storm of him joining us for this episode and a lot of that was his vision. We obviously knew the video and the song and we just kind of let him go with it. I think we had an hour or two worth of material that we had to whittle down to two minutes, which was difficult, but at the same time, it was a lot of fun. I thought he did an amazing job.
What were some of the other emotional ballads in the running for Kenny to recreate?
JOHNSON: We initially started talking about “Nothing Compares 2 U” and we were thinking of that Sinead O’Connor video with her in the black cloak and she’s kind of walking through the foggy moors. We wanted to recreate that, and then we thought production wise that might be a little tricky. Also, it was difficult to get the rights to that song; it’s actually a Prince song. Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” was right up there at the top too and we just loved the billowing sheets with the images on it. It was a way to show the progression of Kenny and Brett’s relationship, and then watching him dance through those sheets and react to them was just hilarious.
This was his first real relationship, so it’s his first real breakup. Why did you decide to end the relationship the way you did, and why is the breakup so hard on him? Of course, it’s difficult because it’s his first, but he seems to really be having a rough time.
WINDSOR: I think it’s that way for a lot of teenagers. You feel that heavy angst of your first breakup and you think that the world is going to end. I remember when I broke up with my first girlfriend in high school. I told my parents, ‘Just so you know, I’m probably not going to eat for a little while’ and they were like ‘Okay, get over yourself,’ but you don’t know any better. All your references are what you see on TV and you think that it’s the heaviest thing in the world. We wanted to channel that, and also his parents and brother and sister knew that wasn’t the case, but when you’re 16, you don’t hear any of that stuff.
JOHNSON: And Kenny a flair for the dramatic anyway, so I think there’s nothing more dramatic than a teenage breakup…unless it’s Kenny O’Neal.
Will he continue to mourn going forward?
JOHNSON: The episode is about him having to go through this heartache and kind of feel it all and there’s a lot of comedy in that, but there’s a real sweet emotional place that the episode gets to too, that he needs his family to be there for him. There’s a last scene where he talks to his dad and his brother and they really help him through it. For us, that’s what helps Kenny get over Brett. I don’t think he’s going to continue to mourn him in the third season, but he’s certainly learned from this and it’s a really cool scene to see, especially Pat just being there for his son through this first boyfriend. We felt like that’s what you need to get through this whether you’re gay or you’re straight and we’ve loved the universality of this story for Kenny.
Speaking of Pat, he’s a Valentine’s Day enthusiast, and Eileen a Scrooge, throughout most of the episode. What would you say they brought this week?
WINDSOR: When we came up with the show, we loved the idea that it was really the dad who was more sympathetic to his kids’ needs. We always said from the beginning that he was more of the emotional caretaker of the family and Eileen was very— she’s all business and very matter of fact; I think that’s why Valentine’s Day doesn’t play into her outlook on all this because it is so sappy and she doesn’t get caught up in any of that stuff, [but] it’s nice in the end. She finally realizes that there is value in that she’s found a guy that she really likes that she hasn’t wanted to admit that she likes, so you see her break down a little bit. On the Pat side, you see that he was excited for Valentine’s Day and in the end, he decides that despite all of that, being there for his son is really what’s most important. So we like that it was consistent with their characters and then paid off in satisfying ways for them.
JOHNSON: It’s been so fun to watch Eileen’s character, to see her boundaries and her beliefs get broken down throughout these two seasons and even her beliefs about Valentine’s Day. She calls Cupid a flying, fat man-baby. She doesn’t believe in it at all, but the circumstances that she’s in now and the man she’s dating are changing her, kind of against her will. Martha [Plimpton] plays that so well and it’s fun to watch. Every time there’s a romantic moment for Eileen, it’s out of her character; it’s in an uncomfortable space for her. Pat’s fun to watch as he tries new things. Jay [R. Ferguson] is so hilarious, putting himself out there and saying, ‘I’m going to meet a woman and find out what a tapa is,’ and you kind of sense that it’s going to go badly for him.
The holiday episodes strike the right balance between being festive, but still moving the story forward and really exploring these characters. How do you approach these holiday episodes, and will St. Patrick’s Day be next?
JOHNSON: We did a big St. Patrick’s Day one last year, which everyone can see on Hulu, by the way. That was really fun for us this season, to delve into those holidays. On Halloween, Kenny dressed as Beyoncé, which was amazing. The Christmas episode was when he first met Brett and they sang a [“The Greatest”]-”O Holy Night” mash-up in a church together, which was really lovely. Then they’ve not celebrated this, the most important romantic holiday that Kenny has built up in his mind for 16 years as being the end-all be-all of what he wants. He doesn’t get to have it and goes on a date by himself, so we really love framing Kenny’s story around these big holidays and these big moments and what he thinks it should be.
WINDSOR: We did [St. Patrick’s Day] last year and [it] was the only holiday because of the timing of the premiere of the show that we were able to do, so we let that be last year’s holiday. [This year], we got into all the other ones. We’re not going to be doing [St. Patrick’s Day] this year, but hopefully season three, we’ll hit it again.
What else is up ahead? What will Kenny and the family be tackling from here?
JOHNSON: We have two more originals after this one for the end of our second season. In the episode after this one, Kenny thinks he found a gay mentor in a teacher at school and he’s really excited to finally have that figure in his life, but it doesn’t go as planned. [The teacher is] played by Cheyenne Jackson, who’s an amazing Broadway singer, and in Kenny’s fantasy in that episode, he and Cheyenne sing “Do Re Mi” together. It’s all about Cheyenne teaching him how to be a refined gay man and it’s really funny; it’s so wonderful to see them sing together, so that’s a great one to watch. Then, in the final episode, there’s a big moment happening…with Eileen and VP Murray. There’s also a lovely story about Kenny and his best friend Allison, and what happens when her family finds out that she’s gay and is not as accepting.
WINDSOR: It brings everything full circle because Eileen sees that Allison’s parents aren’t accepting of her and it’s sort of where she was last year. It’s taken her these 29 episodes to finally get to a place of like, the love I have for my kid outweighs whatever my opinions are about him being gay, so you see her…really take a big step forward and it was a nice way to showcase that. It’s important for us to never just have everyone be okay with everything all of the sudden because that’s not really how life works. You have family members that don’t agree with the choices that you make and they’re not all of the sudden okay with everything tomorrow, so it was important for us to not rush that. It was a good way to show her progression over these two seasons.
The Real O’Neals airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. E.T. on ABC.