The Real O’Neals is that rare thing, a genuinely inspired comic take on Irish (Catholic) American life that hits the sweet spot between reality and fiction. Cahir O'Doherty reviews the new sitcom show which has drawn the ire of some Irish American Catholics, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
What's the first rule of Irish family life? It’s shut up. Keep a lid on it. Whatever you say say nothing. We’re the only ethnic group that likes to take our dirty laundry to the launderette already washed and neatly folded.
That’s because the worst thing that can ever happen to us, the cardinal sin of Irish life, is loss of face. That’s also why you are going to love ABC’s chaotic, unglued, very Irish and very funny new sitcom The Real O’Neals.
Living in the suburbs of Chicago, the O’Neals are a recognizably Irish Catholic family whose epic public meltdown comes – wouldn’t you know it – at the parish bingo night, but the twist here is that there’s a microphone nearby and every word they’ve uttered in private has been broadcast to their open jawed neighbors.
First Eileen O’Neal (a delightful Martha Plimpton) reveals she is planning to divorce her cop husband Pat (Jay R. Ferguson). Then eldest son and college football jock Jimmy (Mathew Shively) reveals he is secretly anorexic. Middle kid Kenny (Noah Galvin, the breakout star of the show) reveals he is gay and youngest daughter Shannon (Bebe Wood) reveals she is a budding con artist and compulsive thief.
In the brilliant pilot episode (viewable on ABCgo.com) this on the surface perfect family finally cash their chips in a dramatic coming out to each other (and the community) moment that forever changes how they’re seen in the judgmental eyes of the local priests and nuns.
That’s the kind of shaming that would keep most Irish American mothers indoors for the rest of their lives, but it’s to The Real O’Neals’ credit that this hilarious unmasking is just the beginning.
Of course no show with a less than perfect Catholic family focus can ever escape the wrath of our self-appointed moral watchdog Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.
Last week Donohue was so offended by the premiere that he took an ad in The New York Times to protest its existence. Donohue’s chief target was one of the show’s executive producers, the broadcaster and famous sex columnist Dan Savage (who is himself Irish American and like Kenny in the show, openly gay).
Savage and Donohue have a long history of getting each other’s Irish. By being gay, Savage has no right to his ethnic ancestry Donohue argues, suggesting that asking him to write about Irish Catholics was like asking former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke to write about African Americans.
In Donohue’s world you can be Irish or you can be gay, but you can’t be both. It’s an idea that The Real O’Neals addresses and pushes back against, which is probably why Donohue and other conservative groups loathe it so much.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians also issued a statement last week condemning the show and demanding an apology from ABC.
“That ABC has chosen to launch this defaming outrage 24 hours into our nation’s recognition of Irish American Heritage Month is despicable. At a time when we should be celebrating Irish Americans such as Commodore Barry, Mother Jones, and real Irish American families such as the Sullivan brothers, Disney/ABC has chosen instead to plumb the lowest depths of intolerant stereotypes. There is nothing real about The Real O’Neals other than real and unmitigated defamation and bigotry,” the statement said in part.
But angry charges of anti-Catholicism are demonstrably unfounded. It’s hard to believe in what universe ABC, which is owned by Disney, would ever sign off on narrowly targeted half hour of anti-Catholic blasphemy once a week.
Instead, what the show does offer, and celebrates, is hard won honesty. Relived of the burden of having to be perfect for each other, the O’Neals are allowed to be something they never dreamed of: themselves.
After their humiliating exposure at the parish bingo night, the show and the characters magically come alive. Instead of the usual two-dimensional sit-com cut outs they spring to life in ways expected and unexpected.
What The Real O’Neals gets right is that everyone is doing what they think is best. It’s just that not everything they’re doing is entirely honest, at first.
What makes the show Irish is the sheer jaw dropping awkwardness of it all. Kenny gets into trouble in his conservative Catholic high school when he emerges as the first ever gay kid to out himself. But worse, he does it by calling himself by the gay F word before anyone else can, landing him an instant visit to the vice principle’s office.
Even better, and even more recognizably Irish, Kenny’s older brother Jimmy later stands up in the assembly hall to say he loves his gay brother, because family is important and anyone who doesn’t like it, well, they know what they can do.
Jokes are interspersed with moments like these that will move you deeply and make you laugh out loud with recognition. When Kenny refers to his mother’s “Irish Catholic Jedi mind control” you know the writers genuinely understand the culture they’re writing about.
But the show’s secret weapon is 16-year-old Noah Galvin as Kenny, who is also the narrator. His relationship with his devoutly Catholic mother comes under a serious strain as she tries to take in his sudden confession.
Kenny was always his mother’s favorite, and she doesn’t care who knows it, so this gay stuff is a serious wrinkle in her plans for him (Notre Dame, a wife and family).
It’s that same humor and tension between mother and son that attracted Plimpton, a noted stage actress as well as a film star, to the role.
“Having read a lot of Dan’s work and knowing the extraordinary relationship he had with his mother, I knew what an incredibly interesting, funny, witty and unique woman she was and how important she was in his life. I wanted to explore that relationship and I wanted to explore the idea of a mother being resistant to her son’s coming out as gay, because of her faith and her fear for the fate of his immortal soul,” she told the press.
Dysfunctional families are just more interesting to watch, and they don’t come more dysfunctional (or, it turns out, more loving) than this tough and tender bunch of insane Irish Catholics.
What’s so smart about the show is how ordinary it looks on the surface while it introduces eye-poppingly original elements. A family trip to the diner sees Jesus make an unexpected but completely convincing appearance. A make out session with his handsy girlfriend sees Kenny consult an imaginary male underwear model for his advice.
The kinds of bitter conflicts that erupt in the O’Neal family can happen in any family in the U.S. They can have pretty dark consequences too, and the show doesn’t sugar coat that. Hitting the sweet spot between comedy and reality is a strength The Real O’Neals already has in spades.
Plimpton’s deeply religious character is the most obviously flawed and judgmental, but is an example of why this show works she’s also the most sympathetic.
In clumsier hands she’d be a bossy harridan, but in this one she’s the glue that keeps the family together. You root for her from her first appearance and you know that whatever she personally feels about Kenny’s orientation, she will love him till the end of her days.
In a year when America needs to take stock of the difference between rhetoric and reality, this show seems to have arrived just in time to help facilitate it.
The Real O’Neals is surfing the zeitgeist, and its comedy and smarts deserve to take it all the way.