There are notable exceptions, but the chasm between sitcom families and real families is vast. So much so that many of these shows are as likely to inspire eye rolls as they are laughter. And that’s unfortunate because family dysfunction is as relatable as it is funny. When you examine The Real O’Neals, which debuts with two episodes tonight, the first one at 8:30 ET, it has the look of a basic sitcom with its goofy dad (Mad Men‘s now naked-faced Jay R. Ferguson), the stern but loving mom (Martha Plimpton), and their three kids (including a jock and a smart-ass), all living in a happy home with few real problems. Do these families exist in nature? It’s certainly not familiar to me, but viewers have grown comfortably numb watching the last dying breath of the Rockwellian notion of family on their TV sets (sometimes to the point where they react with anger when it gets challenged — but we’ll get to that in a moment). And yet, if you give The Real O’Neals a chance, it will surprise you.
Created by Casey Johnson and David Windsor, two executive producers on Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartment 23, The Real O’Neals seeks to tell the tale of a Chicago family with a well-cultivated image as a working-class Irish-Catholic vision of perfection. But it’s all a facade. Uber-judgemental Mom and disconnected Dad are in trouble, little sister (Bebe Wood) is climbing the criminal ladder, big brother (Matt Shively) has a burgeoning eating disorder, and Kenny (Noah Galvin) is trying to find the right moment to tell the family that he is gay. All things that are hindered by the fact that the O’Neals aren’t very good at communicating with each other. Sound more like home?
Naturally, the use of both homosexuality and Catholicism as plot elements has gotten a response even before the show has reached the air. You can imagine the knuckle draggery (especially as it pertains to columnist/advocate Dan Savage’s role as a producer), but unless you are hyper-sensitive to entertainment where those two things merely exist in the same zip code, this show shouldn’t offend. The Real O’Neals isn’t an attack on the Catholic faith so much as it’s a tweak against those who put entirely too much pressure on themselves and their families while caring entirely too much about what other people think.