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.
To pull that off, The Real O’Neals relies heavily on Martha Plimpton, an underrated spark plug on the perfectly pleasant Raising Hope who’s given more challenging material here. As the one holding on hardest to the idea that her family is perfect and as the only character that objects to Kenny’s sexuality, Plimpton’s Eileen is nearly unlikeable at times. But at the end of the day, like all TV moms, the character warms and it’s hard not to warm to her. She cares about her kids more than her reputation — just barely — and her relationship with Kenny is heading toward a good place. A lesser actress would fold under the weight of those layers but Plimpton stands tall.
As Kenny, Noah Galvin also has a lot of weight put on his shoulders since the show focuses on his character’s new life as an out teenager. In the four episodes screened for critics, Kenny moves from working up the confidence to tell his family that he’s gay, accepting his mother’s less-than-full support, dealing with perceived bias in school, and going on his first date with a boy. All of these moments are handled with care and an ably light dramatic touch — a testament to the writers and Galvin — but Kenny is at his best when he’s dealing with general teenage awkwardness. That’s particularly true when the show opens up and allows him to dip into a fantasy world of dance numbers and celebrity cameos in a move that would feel far more refreshing were Crazy Ex-Girlfriend not a thing.
As enjoyable as The Real O’Neals is (and it does feel like a solid addition to ABC’s stable of family comedies like The Goldbergs, Fresh Off the Boat, and Black-ish), though, it could also be more refreshing. Simply put, TV niceness does infect the product from time to time. It’s like the producers are at war with themselves, trying to figure out if they want to be a stock family sitcom or something that embraces the uncomfortable moments usually unseen in such shows. To be the latter, The Real O’Neals can’t smooth over something like a looming divorce (there are times when Eileen and Pat’s amicable parting seems more friendly than half the marriages on television) or a teenager’s eating disorder. Please forgive me, though I’ll likely never forgive myself, but The Real O’Neals needs to “keep it real” and keep things a little messy if it’s going to continue to stand out. Keep the end-of-episode hugs to a minimum, please.
Also, they should let Jay R. Ferguson grow back his Mad Men Stan beard to add some wild herbs to the stew. Because Jay R. Ferguson should always have his Mad Men Stan beard if for no other reason than so I can tell the difference between him and Nathan Fillion.
The Real O’Neals premieres on ABC tonight before moving to its regular slot on Tuesday nights starting March 8.