Hit or Sh**: ABC’s THE REAL O’NEALS
Over the last two years, it seems that ABC has been trying to posit itself as the Most Relatable Network. There seems to be a show for literally every demographic. African-American? BLACK-ISH is for you! Asian? There’s FRESH OFF THE BOAT! Strong, independent woman or gay man? All of SHONDALAND has your back! But wait, a white network executive might say, all this diversity calls for one thing — More white people. Let’s be real: MODERN FAMILY has gotten stale over the years and ABC needs some fresh, white, gay-but-not-too-gay blood. And fear not! THE REAL O’NEALS is here to fill that Irish Catholic hole in ABC’s demographic-focused heart.
Was this not enough for you, Irish Catholics?
Based on American author and LGBT activist Dan Savage’s childhood, THE REAL O’NEALS follows the dysfunctional shenanigans of the (you guessed it) O’Neal family — a seemingly perfect Irish Catholic clan living in Chicago. But, in typical sitcom fashion, these people aren’t perfect at all. The parents are getting a divorce (…groundbreaking), the 13-year-old daughter is becoming a kleptomaniac drifter (go with it), the eldest jock son is anorexic (yikes), and, worst of all, the middle son is… GAY (*screams of terror*). This last revelation sends the matriarch Eileen (Martha Plimpton) into a fit more appropriate for the End of Days.
I realize it’s a desperate network comedy and sometimes we have to unsuccessfully exaggerate for laughs (*cough* GLEE *cough*), but I have some serious problems with believability here. Her daughter is stealing from charity and her eldest son has a serious mental illness and is hurting himself, but it’s the *GASP* gay son that really gets the mother’s Christian knickers in a twist? What kind of monster is this woman?
You tell her, Ron
This is not to say that veteran actress Martha Plimpton doesn’t do her damnedest to make her character believable and likeable. But no matter how much comedic talent and ethereal lighting you throw at a heartless she-demon, she’ll still be an unreasonable harpy doomed to drag the show down into hell with her.
The true breakout star here is Noah Galvin, who plays Kenny, the gay son/voice of reason. He’s charming, funny, and almost manages to carry the pilot’s lazy exposition voiceover. Here’s to hoping this kid will get a better show soon. On the other hand, Jay R. Ferguson and Bebe Wood are competent as the patriarch and daughter respectively. Ferguson plays the classic, clueless dad character and Wood plays a modified version of the annoying, precocious child she was in THE NEW NORMAL a couple years ago. It’s all fine. On my third hand (don’t ask), there’s Matt Shively as the eldest son Jimmy, a high school wrestling jock and anorexic. This is where things get hairy again.
Before the show even aired, conservative Catholics were very offended about the remote possibility this show would be successful at skewering the religious right, but THE REAL O’NEALS pilot barely dips a pinky toe into the religious debate. No, the most problematic is its handling of a very serious topic: Anorexia. There’s this very strange gag where Jimmy gets a heaping plate of food at this church event, takes a big desperate whiff, and drops the whole damn thing in the garbage. What? Is food waste supposed to be funny? Later, during the big scene where the whole family airs out their dirty laundry, it’s (kind of?) explained. Almost happily, Jimmy declares: “I’m anorexic!” What’s the joke here? Seriously. I’d really like the writers to explain their way out of this one.
“You see, it’s funny because he’s a man! No? Wait, it’s because he WANTS to eat waffles
but has a serious mental illness preventing him for doing so— I should stop”
While the painful tone-deafness is certainly a hurdle to jump, THE REAL O’NEALS seems destined to fail (at least critically) because of its reliance on boring stereotypes. It has every character you would expect from a family comedy: The uptight mother, lazy dad, jock older brother, precocious little sister, and “sane” middle child. Even the side characters are derivative. There’s Eileen’s ditzy mom friend Jodi (who delivers the WTF Line of the Episode: “I think I pulled my vagina muscle. Do women have groins?”), Kenny’s clueless girlfriend Mimi, and so on. It’s all very reminiscent of previous stereotype-driven shows THE NEW NORMAL and GLEE, so I’m truly surprised Ryan “Mr. Stereotype” Murphy doesn’t have his hands in this. But, be comforted because we know how those shows ended: The first mercifully canceled at the end of its first season, and the other in a long, spiraling fire tornado of musical disappointment and pandering. Let’s hope THE REAL O’NEALS’ demise is more like the former.
THE REAL O’NEALS airs on Tuesdays on ABC