The idea of a gay son scandalizing a conservative Irish-Catholic family — and turning out to be the least of the skeletons in its closet — doesn’t feel as novel as it once might have. Yet the conceit is moderately engaging in “The Real O’Neals,” an ABC comedy made more provocative and controversial by its auspices, with journalist/advocate Dan Savage among the producers. If the show works, and that’s a long shot, it will likely be because of Martha Plimpton, playing a mother who might not understand or accept everything about her kids, but who, at her core, genuinely loves them.
At the center of the story is 16-year-old Kenny (Noah Galvin), who not only narrates but escapes into elaborate flights of fancy, such as Jesus making an appearance at the O’Neals’ dinner table. Kenny knows he’s gay, but can’t bring himself to break the news to anyone — including his mom and girlfriend — despite the urging of that fantasy male model he sees in the mirror to come on out. “I can’t be gay. Ever,” Kenny muses, while mom is positively giddy over the prospect of the whole family being featured in the church bulletin.
Inevitably, Kenny, his two siblings (Matt Shively, Bebe Wood), and his soon-to-be-divorced mom and dad (“Mad Men’s” Jay R. Ferguson), the latter a Chicago cop, engage in an unexpectedly public airing of dirty laundry, proving that nobody has really learned anything, at least in sitcom terms, since “Ellen.” The revelations don’t settle much of anything, although they do elicit lots of concerned looks and feigned sympathy from the local gossips.
Credited to a quartet of writers, and directed by sitcom veteran Todd Holland, “The Real O’Neals” has the feeling of a show that began with a foundation in Savage’s reality — which inspired him to champion the “It Gets Better” Project, a public-service campaign reaching out to gay teens, who are at a higher risk of suicide — before taking several more sitcom-friendly turns along the way.
Given the acerbic nature of Savage’s commentary, in fact, the tone of the series seems to offer a window onto the edge-blunting nature of ABC’s development process. That doesn’t invalidate the show, necessarily, but it does render it somewhat toothless, despite the sight-unseen condemnation leveled against it by conservative groups that have branded Savage an “anti-Christian bigot.”
Galvin is good, albeit reduced to a state of near-constant exasperation, but it’s Plimpton who stands out most as the blue-collar mom — someone who has to rather abruptly pivot from worrying about her son engaging in premarital sex to, in her eyes, the state of his immortal soul.
Yet the truth is that “Real O’Neals” doesn’t appear any edgier than “Modern Family” (the long-running hit that ABC will use to help try to introduce the series, in advance of its regular Tuesday time slot) in preaching acceptance within a family context, or any number of shows that explore teenage sexuality, gay or straight. And in fact, there’s something inherently conservative about the underlying notion of parents and kids loving each other, whatever the complications and differences.
In that regard, every little bit helps, and for gay teens, the normalizing aspects of something like “The Real O’Neals” is surely another step toward mainstream acceptance. Yet if the show hopes to stay real — or at least on ABC — the “It Gets Better” label will have to apply to the upcoming episodes, too.