Even on ABC itself, sitcoms haven’t balked at portraying out gay characters. Most find the humor in other characters finding out (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), or attempt to focus on day-to-day normalities (Modern Family, with debatable effectiveness), but none have yet felt as focused on the adolescent angst of being in the closet, and what happens after you come out, as The Real O’Neals. Kenny’s personal ticks occasionally veer into stereotype (he likes tea, doesn’t know what the Super Bowl is), but there’s enough of a low-key sweetness to him to see how he could potentially connect to a viewer in a similar situation.
It works because it presents both sides of the argument, and it probably wouldn’t have worked at all without Martha Plimpton. The actress, who’s had her hands in everything from off-Broadway renditions of David Mamet plays to a starring role in the blocky world of Minecraft: Story Mode, is someone I’d comfortably put in the dictionary next to “flawless.” She brings the undying familial loyalty her character effused in the creep-up-on-you brilliant Raising Hope, but wields a sharper knife in The Real O’Neals.
She mostly uses that to cut down her family a peg or two, especially when she begins to literally list the ways in which she can fix her budding criminal daughter and anorexic son. Unfortunately, her devout Irish Catholic beliefs think that Kenny’s homosexuality is something as easy to cross off as skim milk on a shopping list.
The internal feud that arises between mother and son is something sitcoms can only dream of – it’s believable and dramatic, sad and frustrating, realistic and humorous in a way that feels like Windsor and Johnson are weaponizing Eileen’s gobsmacking claims into an arsenal of raining bullets that all drill holes into how utterly ridiculous devout, unwavering homophobia can be. And yet, Eileen is never stigmatized for her views.
Thankfully, it’s also funny. Jokes are less rapid-fire and more deliberate, arising from the awkwardness of situations and character rather than the loony, see-what-sticks mentality of more taxing shows. When Kenny sits on the porch with Eileen, the latter making minuscule strides in trying to understand her son, he relates how a guy he went on a date with was vegan, even outside of Lent. “Well,” she says, the Old Testament coming out of her, this time in favor of her son and not against him, “He’s going to die alone.” The Real O’Neals mines humor from its focus on the dissonance between what Kenny thinks coming out will mean versus what it actually amounts to, and there’s a sharp candor to that when the writers aren’t otherwise sanding edges.
The rest of the family works best in the background in the first four episodes. Jimmy is sweet when he’s backing Kenny up in Game of Thrones-marathon interludes, but an episode four subplot about his overbearing pursuit of nonexistent bullies berating the middle O’Neal drags. Pat is a bit vanilla, but he brings in the other compelling idea of The Real O’Neals that I won’t reveal here because I found the pilot to pack a nastier punch not knowing. Every now and then Shannon gets a subtly gonzo line that sparks, but she’s probably the most unfocused O’Neal: a precocious prodigy who makes intricate science fair projects on Moore’s Law in one afternoon and “has property in Mexico.” Even if they fleetingly grate, the best thing about ’em all? They love Kenny.
Not everything gels with the loud-and-proud nature of Kenny’s inner monologue (there are about two too many musical numbers, and there’s two musical numbers), but Galvin mostly finds intriguing forays into portraying Kenny as a believably distraught, confused teen whose upticks in confidence shock us as much as him. Still, on a show built around the character, he’s simply not as interesting as his problems. That’s the first problem for The Real O’Neals itself: it’s built a world teeming with fresh, absorbing issues that manage to avoid being squeamishly topical. Now it just needs to make the characters facing those issues feel as real as the issues themselves.
At the end of The Real O'Neals' rainbow, there's a pot of gold full of engrossing issues and problems for its titular family to face - just be ready to wade through some formulaic sitcom fodder to get there.