In 'The Real O'Neals,' the family that goes cray-cray together stays together

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

ABC, which has styled itself as the network of sitcom diversity, with "black-ish," "Fresh Off the Boat" and "The Goldbergs," expands the brand Wednesday with the premiere of "The Real O'Neals," the story of an Irish American (read: Catholic) family that comes apart, and sticks together, when a teenage son (Noah Galvin as the narrating Kenny O'Neal) declares himself gay. (The series moves to Tuesdays on March 8.)

Many hands have been at it, seemingly, to make something that will work in prime time on a commercial broadcast network. Dan Savage, the sexual mores columnist, had "the idea," and there are a few remaining similarities between his early life and his stand-in character's; but (like Eddie Huang in "Fresh Off the Boat") he has faded into the background, with the television professionals taking charge. These include creators Casey Johnson and David Windsor ("Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23"), executive producer Todd Holland ("The Larry Sanders Show") and consulting producer Kevin Biegel ("Enlisted"), and to my mind, taste and sense of fun, they've succeeded.

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Past the superficially controversial premise, which (with older characters and a Boston rather than the Chicago setting) resembles that of the 2014 CBS comedy "The McCarthys," it's a familiar construction: There are the jocky older brother (Matt Shively); the geeky middle one, who here is also the gay one; the weirdly advanced youngest child (Bebe Wood); the mother (Martha Plimpton) who attempts to control the uncontrollable, and the father (Jay R. Ferguson) who would just like things to be a little easier. A nip here and a tuck there and you have "The Middle" (also on ABC).

There are some mild jokes about religious people and practices; Jesus appears from time to time. (The show has an "Ally McBeal"-brand fantasy component.) There are, of course, those who would say that merely putting a gay teen at the center of a comedy — at least one not tortured by his sexuality but excited to have accepted it — is by its very nature an attack on their beliefs. Of course, there is nothing to be done about that, unless you're going to chase all of TV's LGBT characters off the screen or back into the closet. And that is not going to happen in this timeline.

More to the point, it's a story about the limits of respectability, and what happens when the Jenga tower of familial secrets and lies comes tumbling down. The answer here, which is a sitcom answer — and not Ingmar Bergman's — though one surely not without its real-life counterparts, is that everything gets a little crazier, and a lot better.

In the rough wake of Kenny's coming out, his parents confess themselves on the verge of divorce; his brother cops to an eating disorder; and his younger sister, the strangest of them all, is revealed to be a kind of natural-born criminal genius. (She will also have a Catholic school science project hypothesizing the nonexistence of God.) In none of the three episodes I've seen does Kenny face the kind of challenges that led Savage to co-found the It Gets Better Project.

"You're just like everyone else except for one glaring difference that I'm not allowed to talk about," says a school counselor.

Everyone pulls their weight; the jokes land lightly. Ferguson shows stuff that "Mad Men" never let him. Galvin is solid; Shively sweetly dim; Wood, behind thick spectacles, droll.

 And above all, there is Plimpton (of “Raising Hope,” and so much more), the anchor here, as she seems to be wherever she goes. Her character's life has proceeded from a youthful indiscretion: “On our second date your father and I went to a Foreigner concert, I smoked a joint and I ended up getting pregnant with Jimmy,” and the woman holds out hope for her son's eventual heterosexuality: “It's like when you were little. You said you hated papaya, and once you tried it you couldn't get enough.”

But it won't be deal-breaker.


'The Real O'Neals'

Where: ABC

When: 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)


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A version of this article appeared in print on March 02, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "It gets crazier, but they stay together - There's fun along with the family upset in `The Real O'Neals.' - TELEVISION REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe