Dec. 6’s “The Real Match,” like many “Real O’Neals” episodes, is in part about seeing past stereotypes about jock culture. To drive home the point that sports aren’t just for straight guys, openly gay athletes Gus Kenworthy and Robbie Rogers make a cameo in Kenny’s (Noah Galvin) imaginings.
The parents’ storyline focused on Pat’s (Jay R. Ferguson) busted back and VP Murray’s (Matt Oberg) ongoing campaign to balance his relationships with both O’Neal parents in their well-intentioned/weird “Three’s Company” relationship, while Eileen’s (Martha Plimpton) running gag is characteristic — Men are big babies when it comes to illness and deserve no coddling — but the A and B plots focused on the kids.
Shannon’s (Bebe Wood) role this season is “Unpopular Evil Genius,” but she takes break this week to be a decent human being. Going undercover with the cheerleaders to out them as fools, she discovers they’re actually pretty smart: They speak five languages, they have strong takes on GMO’s, and reference “Titus Andronicus.”
Shannon: “What is happening? Are you smart, are you dumb? Are you insightful? Are you vapid? Who are you girls?”
Chloe (Madison Pettis): “We’re fun!”
A fascinated Shannon abandons her take-down expose in favor of writing a sweet feature on Kenny — who, apparently, might be a good wrestler. “It was one match,” a sulking Jimmy reiterates, watching his brother receive accolades for newfound athleticism, and outshining him yet again.
Kenny, in many ways, has everything; the trouble hasn’t really started yet. He’s the smart and well-adjusted one, his parents take him seriously, he’s beloved by his school — which the show often admits is less “accurate depiction of Catholic high school” and more “poignant hope for the near future” — and it’s assumed he’ll go far in life.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is used to being the butt of the family’s jokes and takes it in stride, getting blamed when the siblings embark on hijinks, and dealing with constant underestimation couched as snarky pragmatism. He’s had the most difficult time with his parents’ divorce, yet is rarely afforded the grace with it he so badly needs. Kenny may be the middle child in actuality, but Jimmy is the older child in spirit.
One of the sweetest things about the show is Jimmy’s unflinching acceptance and support of his brother’s sexuality — a clever if not shocking twist on the “macho jock” stock character, holding the role of problematizing archaic gender norms: If Jimmy loves musicals right alongside his brother — complete with an incredible split-second impromptu “West Side Story” dance duet — and isn’t scared to look this stuff in the face, we’re invited to wonder why the feminization of gay men has been a staple of television, particularly a certain kind of lowbrow comedy, for so long.
Jimmy tries to help Kenny date, he stands up for him at school and otherwise — he even tries, and fails, to learn perceived “lingo” so he can communicate with his brother in a way he assumes his brother wants him to. In this case, he even encourages Kenny to compete in wrestling. The show’s been missing realistic, if ugly, sibling rivalry between the brothers. They were overdue.
Maybe one of the reasons Jimmy and Kenny have such an easy relationship is because they’ve never competed with each other, at least in Jimmy’s mind. But while both brothers are popular in Venn diagram-like circles, Jimmy really only has sports and natural-born privilege to fall back on — which he eventually realizes is endangered once Kenny “waltzes” in (not a waltz) and threatens to take even those away:
There’s an icky little bit of truth in Jimmy’s eventual explosion — that his brother’s only getting attention for winning his match because he’s gay — but it reflects well on no one. Kenny deserves every weapon and tool he can find for survival, but is tone-deaf to his brother’s anguish; their schoolmates often go so far into so-called tolerance (lampooned even more gregariously on companion series “Speechless”) it’s weird and/or offensive; Jimmy himself should know the stakes in play by now. But Shively delivers Jimmy’s underlying pain so well, it’s hard not to hurt with him, regardless of how ugly the situation becomes.
It is, of course, Jimmy who heals the breach, standing up for his brother after a twist into nastiness — a wrestler forfeits his match with Kenny, for reasons he doesn’t even need to spell out — kills the humor: And in a very Jimmy way, he steps up with great intentions and no ability to execute, eventually explaining in a heartfelt way that it is the opposing team who is, in fact, gay — but just not in the good way.
While Shannon’s storyline was the brightest surprise of the episode, it amounts to a few one-liners that could easily be seen as more of the same, the sort of “what if cheerleaders were smart?” joke we’ve seen on sitcoms for fifty years if they weren’t so well-written and -delivered… If it weren’t for the corresponding sweetness and sudden drama of the Jimmy story, which takes the cake.
“Real O’Neals” won this week on Shively’s performance, but it’s a stellar episode all around: Breaking down gendered stereotypes about cheerleaders on one hand and jocks, as usual, on the other, perfectly complemented by the three-parent C-story, which puts bromance and romance into a blender, and then finishing off with a clever motif about male fragility: As they discuss on the way to the final match, it’s psychotic housewife Eileen who teaches the kids to be tough, and manchild policeman Pat who teaches them his soft strength. The fact that they can be so honest about themselves, and so calmly and sweetly — while both being courted by the same dude, for different reasons — goes a long way toward explaining how they ended up with such great kids in the first place.
“The Real O’Neals” airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. The winter finale, “The Real Christmas,” airs Dec. 13.