March 23, 2016

Breaking Rules and Following Tropes: The Real O’Neals

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For a network that gave us Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat and Modern Family, a sitcom about a white Irish-Catholic family seems a little out of place. After all, this is 2016! Didn’t Shonda Rhimes promise to protect America from yet another all-white cast? Despite its first impression, the premise for The Real O’Neals tries to be more audacious that it initially appears. The series, which debuted earlier this month, follows the members of a supposedly perfect Christian family as they are forced to face circumstances that challenge their righteous  —  yet image-obsessed  —  lifestyle.

Among these circumstances? Well, parents Eileen and Pat (Martha Plimpton of The Goonies fame and Mad Men’s Jay R. Ferguson, respectively) announce they are getting a divorce, eldest son Jimmy (Matthew Shively) has an eating disorder and the family’s devious daughter, Shannon (Bebe Wood), reveals she embezzled church funds to buy a used car. Most notably, the series’s narrator and perpetually uncomfortable middle-child Kenny (Noah Galvin) comes out as gay  —  all in just the span of a few minutes. The sheer magnitude of what the family experiences makes one thing loud and clear: this is going to be a bold show.

At first, that promise seems plausible. Particularly in an era where discussions of sexual identity still make many parents uneasy, depicting not only complex LGBTQ+ characters but also the relationship between gay teens and their uncomfortable parents through humor is daring in and of itself. The pilot lays firm groundwork for an apt discussion of the generational divide in social ideology and confrontation of the very real, very pressing problems that face today’s youth. Ultimately, The Real O’Neals has the capacity to venture into previously untouched and somewhat risky comedy territory by illustrating what many TV viewers have been observing for a few years: the collapse of the perfect, classic all-American TV family.

Unfortunately, The Real O’Neals doesn’t do any of that — at all. Instead, the show quickly turns mediocre through a script that falls firmly into cliché territory and becomes a watered-down analysis of the issues it ambitiously chose to tackle. Jimmy’s anorexia is quickly resolved by eating Jesus-shaped pancakes and is rarely mentioned again. Shannon’s kleptomania is ignored and instead adapted into a general disbelief in a Christian god, which is then disregarded as well. The only lasting struggle for the family lies between Kenny and his mother, who still wrestles with her son’s sexual orientation. Although Plimpton’s portrayal of an aggravated mother torn between her religious ideology and her love for her son is excellently chilling, her performance is overshadowed by boring plot lines and easy jokes.

The Real O’Neals ends up as a banal network comedy that employs little to no creativity. The characters seem to have been derived straight from a list of TV tropes (A laid-back father, zany mother, airheaded older brother … the list goes on.) and the plots stick to the standard “Something goes wrong and hilarity ensues!” formula that plagues network TV. The Real O’Neals, as a comedy, is unappetizing. The bulk of the successful jokes come from Kenny’s role as the straight man (no pun intended) against his illogical family as well as his sheer awkwardness (Kenny suddenly blurting “I’m scared of vaginas” to his father was the comedic apex of the pilot episode.). Although Galvin, who is 21, plays the role of a gawky 16-year old entertainingly, his portrayal of Kenny’s unsuccessful attempts at being suave can only make up the entire comic backbone of the series for so long. Into the third and fourth episodes of the series, Kenny’s quirks become less humorous and more agonizing; it soon becomes clear that the writer’s room is relying heavily on Galvin and Plimpton’s performances to generate laughs.

In spite of its uninteresting execution, The Real O’Neals finds some zest in its parodies of religious zeal. Several conservative Christian organizations condemned the show well before it even debuted, referring to it as anti-Catholic and bigoted. Eileen’s invocations of religion are amusingly extreme (Kenny remarks that his mother put a statue of the Virgin Mary on top of their toilet to ensure he and his brother remember to put the seat down) and successfully satirize the qualms of many areligious youth. Like Kenny’s funny-at-first awkwardness, however, Eileen’s intensity soon becomes overused not only as a platform for quick quips, but also as an exhausted plot device.

The Real O’Neals shows incredible promise, and, of course, has the rest of the season to prove its worth to viewers. For now, the show’s current trend in sticking to the stale sitcom rules and relying greatly upon its leads points to a dead-end for this TV family. Regardless, one part of The Real O’Neals’ failure with the well-worn comedy playbook is encouraging — perhaps this flop will, once and for all, signal the end of the cliche-ridden American sitcom.

Pegah Moradi is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].