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American audiences love a good origin story, whether it involves superheroes bitten by arachnids or businessmen born from poverty. It’s the coming out experience that gets the spotlight where gay characters are concerned, and that’s the foundation upon which ABC’s newest comedy The Real O’Neals is built. Though much of the show’s formula treads on familiar sitcom grounds, the cast and the more imaginative sequences keep the sometimes broad The Real O’Neals from coming off as repetitive as so many origin stories tend to be.
Though this is a family comedy, the driving force behind The Real O’Neals is Kenny, the 16-year-old son who shakes the earth beneath his Catholic household when he reveals that he’s gay. Kenny is played by theater actor Noah Galvin in his first major role on the small screen, and it is no small compliment when I say that Galvin manages to outshine everyone else in this extremely talented cast. Life can’t get much more complicated than it does for Kenny, who must deal with how his family reacts and adjusts to his homosexuality, as well as being the only openly gay student at a Catholic school. And Galvin makes every moment his own, reacting with appropriate mixtures of teen awkwardness and obliviousness as he beelines his way from one uncomfortable situation to another.
Now for the parents. Matriarch Eileen O’Neal, played by Raising Hope vet Martha Plimpton, is the most devout member of the family, and has just as much non-constructive criticism for her loved ones as she does faith in the Lord. As you might imagine, she has the hardest time dealing with the direction of Kenny’s sexual awakening, though she deals with it more through cornball avoidance than anything else. Things aren’t going so well between Martha and husband Pat (Mad Men’s Jay R. Ferguson), a police officer who seems like he’d be more interested in sitting alone in a quiet room than dealing with everything happening around him.
Kenny is the middle child – because of course he is – and his siblings fit TV stereotypes a little too snugly. 17-year-old Jimmy, played by Matt Shively, is an athlete who isn’t quite a jock and isn’t quite a moron, and though he wants to be Kenny’s protector now that his younger bro has come out, Jimmy isn’t always that successful. Then there’s 14-year-old Shannon (Bebe Wood), who is reaching that point in her life where she’s questioning her faith and is almost too clever for her own good. I’d say she was like a copy of Modern Family’s Alex, but it’s really just a slightly older version of Wood’s own precocious character in the short-lived NBC comedy The New Normal.
The Real O’Neals was created by David Windsor and Casey Johnson, both of whom worked on shows such as Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, Galavant and What I Like About You, among others. But the concept comes from famed author, journalist and LGBT activist Dan Savage, who is probably most known for his advice column Savage Love. The show is loosely based on his own childhood, from the Chicago setting to his parents’ relationship, although there’s no telling whether or not Savage also saw magazine ad models in the mirror.
Dan Savage’s involvement – along with the comedy’s views on being gay, being Catholic and being anything else – was cause for some controversy when the American Family Association and the Family Research Council took it upon themselves to try and get ABC to get the show stricken from the schedule. That attempt went unrealized, obviously, and for good reason. There isn’t anything about The Real O’Neals to get offended by, unless one’s moral code remains glued to the fringe, and those kinds of folks aren’t going to be watching anyway.
For everyone else that is perfectly happy to sit down with The Real O’Neals, though, there is definitely something to enjoy. My favorite bits were Kenny’s strange and worry-filled fantasy sequences, one of which even features a synergetic cameo from Jimmy Kimmel. But you might be more into the themes of acceptance pushed by most of the characters, or seeing Plimpton back on TV as another memorable mother. It’s not the hippest or the most cult-ready show to hit the airwaves, but The Real O’Neals is upbeat, silly in all the right ways, and serves as another example of ABC’s quiet takeover of broadcast comedy.
The Real O’Neals will premiere on ABC on Wednesday, March 2, first at 8:30 p.m. ET, with another new episode airing an hour later at 9:30 p.m. ET. The comedy will then take up its normal Tuesday night slot on March 8. This is hardly the kind of logistical premiere worthy of a show that anyone has any confidence in, but we’ll see how it goes.