Sweet and Savage: The Real O’Neals Reveals Itself to Be a Multidimensional Sitcom

When I was a kid, network sitcoms were the main event on TV nights. And I think I probably learned a lot from watching them. Family Ties taught me that kids and parents could have dramatically different political views and still remain a loving, mostly cohesive unit. Taxi showed me there was a grittier and hilarious world beyond my suburban surroundings, and Three’s Company taught me…well, I’m not entirely sure what Three’s Company taught me, but it sure did make inhabiting the singles scene look fun.

While today’s television offerings occupy a different stratosphere in terms of sheer choices, where violent hour-long dramas rule in ratings, the network sitcom lives on. ABC’s Modern Family has long been lauded for its portrayal of nontraditional family dynamics, while Black-ish (also on ABC) has garnered acclaim for addressing issues of racism. Enter the network’s latest offering: The Real O’Neals, which premiered earlier this month.

The show centers on the Irish-Catholic O’Neal family, all five members of which have been keeping secrets. Those secrets come out in the first episode—for one, mom Eileen (played by Martha Plimpton) and dad Pat (Jay R. Ferguson) are splitting up. Pat announces this to their three children at church bingo night in an effort to be open. “We’re screwing up our kids with our whole Irish-Catholic not talking about things,” he laments, and when his overbearing and super-Catholic wife tries to silence him, he yells, “We can’t corn-beef this, Eileen!” Feeling the power of the truth tonic, Eileen divulges that she got pregnant after smoking a joint on their second date at a Foreigner concert. This prompts their oldest child Jimmy (Matt Shively), a high school wrestling star, to admit he’s anorexic and their youngest Shannon (Bebe Wood) to come clean that she used the money she supposedly raised for charity to buy a car on Craigslist. Sixteen-year-old Kenny (Noah Galvin), who’s the middle child and the show’s main character, then announces he’s gay.

The show was originally billed as an autobiographical take on the adolescence of columnist, LGBT advocate, and 2013 Humanist of the Year Dan Savage. He’s still executive producer, but the show is now described as “loosely based” on his life. Could this be because conservatives threw a fit when they first learned of the show? The Family Research Council called on ABC to cancel it before it even aired, and in a paid ad that appeared on the February 29 New York Times op-ed page, Catholic League President Bill Donohue railed on Savage and his hatred for the Catholic Church. He even said that basing The Real O’Neals on Savage’s Catholic upbringing was like hiring David Duke to produce a show about African Americans. Of course, this is nuts given that Savage really did grow up gay in an Irish-Catholic family and David Duke—well, we all know (even Donald Trump knows) he’s a white guy.

But for those who know Dan Savage’s story and who’ve heard him speak about it, the autobiographical connections are clear. In his Humanist of the Year acceptance speech, Savage told this story:

I remember very distinctly when I was seven or eight years old looking at an illustrated world encyclopedia for children and seeing a procession of Mayan temple priests wearing robes and big, crazy hats and carrying weird things, and then turning the page and seeing a procession of priests in ancient Egypt and thinking, this shit looks really familiar. It looks like mass. I was seeing my dad in these processions, and I realized that some other kid probably saw his dad in similar processions at Mayan temples and in ancient Egypt. These people, I remember thinking, probably believed whatever it was they were processioning about with the same passion and fervor that my family felt in a Catholic Church on a Sunday afternoon. That was the beginning of my doubt, a doubt that would then one day be resolved when my sexuality gave me the coup de grace and ended it.

Like the sitcoms of my youth, The Real O’Neals relies on a fair number of sitcom conventions, and yet the show deals with some pretty controversial topics while portraying a messy but ultimately loving family.

In Episode 2, mom Eileen, desperate to maintain an illusion of normalcy, encourages Kenny to have sex with his girlfriend after he breaks up with her. She then looks for redemption in the eyes of their community at Shannon’s Catholic school science fair. She’s expecting her bright daughter to take home a blue ribbon, and Shannon is certainly wowing the crowd (which includes the priest) as she explains her project on Moore’s Law and the possibility that computers will someday have the capacity to run simulations of multiple universes. Her hypothesis, Shannon announces to the rapt crowd, is “that there is no God.”

Watch out and tune in—it’s getting real in TV-land.

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