'The Real O'Neals': A Frantic, Gay, Catholic Sitcom

Ken Tucker
·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

A frantic little sitcom staffed with good actors, The Real O’Neals is the latest addition to the current ABC sitcom formula: Shows about wacky families who get themselves all worked up over an issue-of-the-week, and then decide at the end of each half-hour that familial love conquers all. See The Goldbergs, The Middle, and Fresh Off The Boat for examples. On a rare occasion — that would be black-ish — an ABC sitcom explodes the formula with the distinctive vision of its creators. (Modern Family was like this when it first came on the air as well.) Not so with The Real O’Neals.

In this case, we have a show built around an aggressively Irish Catholic clan whose teen son Kenny (Noah Galvin) wants to come out as gay. He does, but not without a lot of shouting and counter-plots to soften and neutralize the subject of anxious adolescent sexuality. Kenny’s brother, for instance, claims to be anorexic, or in the lingo of this show, “has male anorexia.” The parents are thinking about getting a divorce, which is a big deal because of their Catholicism. The latter two are played by Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson in what are easily the best performances of the show, full of bustling precision. Plimpton can make lines such as “You know what’s even brighter than those sparklers? The light of Christ” achieve their own sparkle. Galvin’s Kenny isn’t as charming — the character is something of a whining drag, and thus not really the guy you want to build a series around.

Some scenes are broken up by moments of fantasy — Kenny’s fantasies, of Jesus appearing to him, or his house a tattered ruin: things that confirm or hammer home points that have already been made and as such are just exaggerations that aren’t funny enough to work as anything fresh. The first couple of episodes were directed by Todd Holland, whose work on Malcolm in the Middle reminds you that he knows how to be clever with broad material, but here, the scripts fail his talent.

The Real O’Neals airs Wednesday nights at 8:30 p.m.