My family is very dedicated to ABC sitcoms. Wednesday night is a very important night of TV, when ABC shows four family sitcoms: The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, and black-ish. Last week a new show was thrown into the mix, with two episodes before and after Modern Family (sadly replacing our two favorites). The Real O’Neals, after their two episode debut week, returned this week to its to-be-regular spot on Tuesdays after Fresh Off The Boat.
I’m very excited about The Real O’Neals. The incessant promos before it’s premiere got a little old (“wait you mean this show hasn’t even started yet?” -dad) but I didn’t care. I’m in love.
The premise, as the promos have no doubt informed the whole world, is an Irish-Catholic family with some problems. As is revealed in the premiere, the parents are getting divorced, the older son has an eating disorder, the daughter is a thief, and the younger son is gay. This is combined with lots of guilt, shame, and judgement to produce a delightful family comedy!
Like Kenny O’Neal (why is his name Kenny), I grew up gay and Irish-Catholic. Now, my mother is not the judgmental hell-fire reputation-preserving mother portrayed by Martha Plimpton and my siblings and I did not go to Catholic school. When I came out to my family, it was not an open conversation where we were all clued in together. It was whispered a few times over six years and never openly talked about. I felt like Kenny in the first episode, when he comes downstairs the next day and says “Aren’t we going to talk about this?” Kenny’s siblings are on board, asking ignorant but well-meaning questions and helping him get ready for a date. I have never properly come out to my siblings, but I thought they knew for a while until my brother tried to buy me a Magic Mike XXL calendar for Christmas.
I watch TV every night in our family room, usually with my dad. He was hesitant to watch this show, saying that he didn’t want it to make fun of Irish-Catholics because a big part of our family is Irish-Catholic. I don’t understand how he doesn’t understand why I would like this show so much (no, I’m not going to change the channel to watch Grandfathered).
There are some elements of the show that I don’t think really fit. Kenny and his siblings are very open about confronting their mother on how judgmental she is. The mother, in turn, talks about Kenny being gay a lot, suggesting that he give up being gay for Lent. This doesn’t seem realistic to me; in my mind (and experience), it would be something that would just be ignored, everyone carefully stepping around each other. Kenny also makes jokes about being gay to his mother (“What’s in that closet?” “Not me anymore!”) in a way that I find so distant from my life. Guilt and shame are talked about as values that their family has but you don’t really see that in the way that the characters behave. Of course, that wouldn’t make very good TV, and this is a sitcom at 8:30.
I also think about how this show would be different if the gay middle child were a girl. In the first episode, Kenny’s girlfriend Mimi wants to have sex with him and he (obviously) is not into it. Even after Mimi learns of Kenny’s sexual orientation, she sees no reason they still shouldn’t lose their virginities to each other (Mrs. O’Neal encourages this). This scene feels very different with a lesbian and an ex-boyfriend who still wants to have sex with her and possibly straighten her out. The questions from the siblings would be different, too, and probably the relationship with the mom. (More queer kids on TV! More lesbians on TV!).
My family watched the third episode of The Real O’Neals together last night. Towards the end of the episode Kenny has a touching conversation with his mom, and in turn my mom says “Oh, maybe this show has some nice moments.” It’s not making fun of Irish-Catholic culture like they thought, but we can see our immediate and extended family in it, warts and all.
I’m excited to see where this season goes (please don’t get cancelled). The way the show (and cast) presents itself online sometimes seems like they think it’s more groundbreaking than it is (gay Catholics have been joking about their guilt for decades). But I’m excited to have a happy gay kid on TV. I’m excited to see some of my sad gay Irish-Catholic experiences turn into happy ones, even if my dad is sitting next to me with his arms crossed.