Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pilot Review: The Real O'Neals

The Real O'Neals (Tuesdays at 8:30 on ABC)

What ethnic minority is left for ABC to tackle with a quirky family sitcom? We've got African Americans (black-ish), Asians (Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken), and Jews (The Goldbergs) covered. The gays are represented (Modern Family), and so are the ever-relatable middle class (The Middle, Last Man Standing). Latinos had Cristela last season. Now we've got the Irish Catholics taking center stage in The Real O'Neals, and the characters' ethnicity is about the only thing separating it from any other dysfunctional family comedies currently on television.

Executive produced by activist and author Dan Savage (also the host of MTV's short-lived talk show Savage U) and loosely based on his life, The Real O'Neals is about a seemingly perfect family and the secrets they're hiding. Because this is broadcast television, none of the secrets are all that scandalous or surprising, but in the tight-knit Catholic community in Chicago where the O'Neals live, divorce, gay teens, and premarital sex are about as naughty as one can get. O'Neal matriarch Eileen (Emmy winner Martha Plimpton) sees the image of her perfect, devout family shattered in a matter of days when her 16 year old son Kenny (Noah Galvin) comes out of the closet, following an embarrassing moment involving their priest and a flushed strip of condoms; when her other son Jimmy (Nickelodeon star Matt Shively) admits he is anorexic; when her young daughter Shannon (The New Normal stand-out Bebe Wood) tells everyone she's been stealing money from a fundraiser and doesn't believe in God; and when her husband Pat (Mad Men's Jay R. Ferguson) blurts out to the kids that he and Eileen have been in marriage counseling and are considering divorce. These confessions are all overheard by the entire church community, branding the O'Neals pitiful charity cases, no matter what their brave faces may say.

Some of the gags are genuinely funny, such as Kenny hallucinating that a magazine model is talking him into coming out, leading him to impulsively flush a strip of condoms and backup the toilet system (leading him to pray to a statue of the Blessed Mother, pleading, "Help me out, girl!"). But overall, the whole basis for The Real O'Neals just feels stale. I have no doubt communities like this one exist, where even the smallest social infractions like divorce, eating disorders, homosexuality, and the like are under rug swept and amount to gossip and social ostracism, especially in religious circles. However, it doesn't feel like a fresh story to be telling in 2016, especially on a network which has been breaking down such barriers with Modern Family for seven years now. In fact, I frequently found myself thinking The Real O'Neals must take place in the early or mid 90s, but it doesn't; the content just feels like it belongs twenty years in the past, because it involves topics that aren't, by and large, all that taboo anymore. Perhaps if the "secrets" the family had were more current, everything would translate better (perhaps if one of the kids came out as transgender, or wanted to convert to Islam, or something), but I just don't see much reason to celebrate a family for getting "real" when it simply amounts to admitting divorce or being an atheist in a Catholic family (welcome to a huge chunk of the population who were raised Catholic). The most transgressive of the family's secrets is probably Jimmy's admission of not eating, as those storylines aren't usually assigned to male characters. But there's barely a mention of it, and the problem seems to be solved by episode two when he's eating "Jesus pancakes." Other subplots, like Eileen's attempt to trick Kenny into having sex with his longtime girlfriend Mimi (Hannah Marks, Awkward.), aren't funny or subversive, just typical sitcom stuff.

Despite the staleness, the cast is excellent, with newcomer Noah Galvin really standing out among the younger cast members. Bebe Wood is also great as the driest of the O'Neal kids, whereas Matt Shively is over-the-top and goofy, sometimes in a cloying way, as the dim, sports-loving oldest sibling. Plimpton and Ferguson do the best they can with underdeveloped roles, even if Plimpton is just playing a less-funny, icier version of Laurie Metcalf's character on last season's similarly-plotted (and swiftly canceled) The McCarthys. Unlike that show, though, the jokes here are lighter and quieter. Some work well (the "church speak" subtitles in episode two are genius), and some not so much. Even when the jokes miss, though, the writing is generally respectable, and it never dips into obviousness (for example, Jimmy isn't a bright bulb, but he's never made to look stupid either). So that's something.

But the problem is simply that The Real O'Neals feels too normal for a show that's built on the premise of its characters being social outcasts. It doesn't use the family's identity to as great an effect as ABC's other shows, particularly lead-in Fresh Off the Boat. The cast is likable, however, and the writing is good, so there's hope that it can be more entertaining than annoying, as long as you don't expect too much.

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