Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
You’ve met the O’Neals before. They’re the happily Catholic, bustling brood of contemporary dysfunction that sitcoms have been pushing since sound came out of television sets. There’s the straight-laced cop dad, the Old Testament mom, the doltish older sibling, the young child prodigy, and the proverbial Malcolm in every middle. New setting. New characters. New theme song. Rinse. Repeat.
ABC’s new sitcom The Real O’Neals focuses on such a family who — as the eloquent cold open of an infamous MTV reality show once put it — decide to find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real (see what they did there?). What most of this boils down to is a lot of sitcom fodder that’s largely innocuous and forgotten in its own continuity within an episode. But what’s left over is a comedy that, while painting in broad Disney-approved strokes, etches out enough stark truths on multiple rarely-seen-in-a-sitcom topics to make its titular family one worth hanging out with. The O’Neals themselves might not be what TV needs right now, but the issues they’re bringing to the table sure as hell are.
It all starts with a zany, frenetic flash-forward in which we learn that Kenny O’Neal (Noah Galvin) has submerged his family into chaos in under a day’s time. Eventually, we meet mom Eileen (Martha Plimpton, marvelous as ever), dad Pat (Jay R. Ferguson), big brother Jimmy (Matt Shively), and little sister Shannon (Bebe Wood), all archetypes but none blatantly annoying. Galvin narrates the shenanigans (he’s the young kid at the center of a family sitcom, so of course he does!) with oppressive gusto. Coupled with a few odd daydream interludes he uses to cope with being in the closet, that setup makes The Real O’Neals as a whole a lot to take in within the groundwork-laying pilot.
But co-creators David Windsor and Casey Johnson know when to pull back, and maybe it’s just acclimation over time, but the O’Neals become far more sensible companions by the second episode. Once all of their secrets come to light in a canny, if protracted, premiere-ending set-piece, The Real O’Neals feels less like a sitcom in search of a gimmick and more like a novel idea that’s blossomed naturally into what’ll be airing on Wednesdays this spring.
The kernel of that idea is that Kenny is gay, has known himself for years, and is dating childhood friend Mimi (Hannah Marks) as a beard until he can figure out how to tell his family. Although the show’s writing frequently dips into visually blunt plot thrusts (one of Kenny’s daydreams paints himself in an unhappy marriage with Mimi far into the future), the end result frequently hits the bull’s eye. He is, ultimately, more terrified of moving forward in his life as something he knows that he isn’t, than he is of what people will say about him. There’s authenticity and bite to that, and the entire scene where he – and his family – “come out” about their truths leaps and bounds the clan into far more endearing territory than their screechy introduction promises.