ABC’s family comedy “The Real O’Neals” wrapped up its second season with an unknown future: Will the O’Neal family see a third season next year, or is this the end of the road?
Going strictly by the numbers, it could be a little bleak for the Irish Catholic family in Chicago: the show has the smallest audience of ABC’s comedy block, only pulling in a .9 in the prized 18-49 demo.
But we’d argue that the O’Neal family has finally found its footing. The show has always had solid comedic chops, with tight writing and solid performances by the entire cast, but arguably started out with a sloppy premise. Not only was Kenny (Noah Galvin) coming out of the closet, but Eileen (Martha Plimpton) and Pat (Jay R. Ferguson) were getting a divorce, Shannon (Bebe Wood) was a klepto, and Jimmy (Matt Shively) had an eating disorder. It was… A lot.
But with a little subtle tinkering, “The Real O’Neals” has quietly become a really good show.
Shortly after the pilot, things were wisely streamlined into two main lanes: Kenny coming out, and Eileen and Pat getting divorced. This gave the show some much-needed focus, and provides the band of characters a center point to happily dance around.
The show also fits so perfectly into ABC’s widely publicized, and successful, commitment for diversity on TV, actually pulling double duty: Not only do we see a young teen accepting his sexuality, but we’re watching a deeply religious family hang on to their faith in an ever-changing world. It’s pretty rare to see religion dealt with in such a relaxed, non-preachy way.
While a third season hasn’t been ordered, it’s worth noting that the episode order for Season 2 was raised this last November — from 13 to 16 — during the two-week break between this season’s fourth and fifth episodes, back in November: A sign of faith, albeit a relatively small one. So if this is the point where fans must start rallying behind a show, letting networks know their show deserves more love — count us in. Here are just a few reasons off the top of our head:
Martha Plimpton as Eileen O’Neal
America needs more Martha Plimpton right now, that’s just a fact. In these wishy-washy times of alternative facts, it’s Martha’s judging stare as Eileen O’Neal that keeps us centered in this world (and our meme generators going). Her pragmatism when it comes to raising her kids is stuff of TV mom gold, but it’s also nice to see her loosen her collar a little, becoming more comfortable with the labels of both “divorcee” and “mother of a gay kid.” Every step she makes toward reconciling with her real life existence feels earned, gradual, and incredibly meaningful.
Also, Eileen throws shade better than anyone in the business.
Bebe Wood as Shannon O’Neal
Eileen: I knew you were up to something.
Shannon: It’s correct to always assume that.
For two seasons we have seen Shannon’s schemes grow in both complexity and creativity: She’s scammed her way into unsupervised free hotel rooms, turned an after school club into a sweat shop, and signed Jimmy up as an Uber driver without his realizing it. Also, her particular brand of evolving feminism/capitalism/I’m going to rule the world someday-ism fits perfectly into today’s super-partisan divide.
Shannon O’Neal is the sister we always wanted: Ultra-competent, slightly socio… And yet somehow still retains a childlike enthusiasm that just breaks our hearts, even when she’s throwing us into shocked laughter.
The Musical Numbers
When the show first premiered in 2016, there was undoubtedly many an eye-roll when it was announced there might be musical numbers. Musicals on network TV can be a hard sell: For every “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” there is a “Galavant” (sniff). But “The Real O’Neals” is smart about how they pepper in their numbers: Short clips, mostly from Kenny’s imagination, they’re well-produced numbers that are clear breaks from reality, instead of spontaneous choreographed sing-a-longs where everyone magically knows the words and steps.
That Whole “Gay” Thing
Yes, the central character of this show is a young boy who comes out of the closet. Yes, there are musical numbers, fantasies about shirtless hotties, and jokes about Mariah Carey. And yes, two boys share a kiss. But in watching the show, what’s most astonishingly unastonishing is how carefully and deliberately “Real O’Neals” ensures it’s really a show about a teenager who has fights with his family, has a first crush, wonders about his future, tries to fit in at school, etc.
In two seasons, we’ve seen Kenny become a more confident, well-rounded character. But we’ve also seen him stumble along the way. You could get yourself tied up in knots trying to figure out the balance between “straight stereotypes about gay people” and “so-and-so just happens to be gay,” both of which we should leave behind — but somehow, the show arrives there, with Kenny: A normal kid, moving through life, trying to figure it all out. It’s an important distinction that we need to see on TV — and an approach to storytelling we’re just now figuring out as a culture.
Putting the same compassionate but smart lens on the “gay stuff” and the “religious stuff,” in fact, will absolutely be the show’s legacy, either way.
The O’Neals are a devout catholic family working out how to balance the pressures of being good Catholics with the realities of modern society, which can fall short of anyone’s expectations. The beauty of this family is that their changes doesn’t happen over night, or even in a single 30-minute episode — and it could be argued they’re not actually “changes” at all, so much as simply the process of learning how to cope and love the world, and themselves, for what they are. As the family slowly negotiates with the fact that Kenny is gay, so too they process the idea of divorce — slowly becoming more themselves, without losing anything at all.
In essence, “The Real O’Neals” could be described as the story of a family learning to accept that simply trying to be good people is enough — because it has to be. A lesson we’re not done watching them learn, and a lesson we’re still learning ourselves.
“The Real O’Neals” airs its Season 2 finale Mar. 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.