The O'Neals: TV Review

The father-daughter reconciliation process between actors Ryan and Tatum O’Neal proves rich fodder for this tense yet affecting portrait of a dysfunctional family.

The OWN docu-series follows Ryan and Tatum O'Neal as they work through their lifelong struggles with their relationship.

Is staring in a reality television show the best way to heal what ails you? Before you scoff at that suggestion, consider the contestants on The Biggest Loser, who appear to derive motivation to shed pounds from the presence of cameras. Or how about the obsessive-compulsive recluses on Hoarders, who have proven incapable of confronting their inner demons unless trailed by a TV crew? In fact, given the evidence put forth on dozens of similar shows, we might conclude that a “lights-camera-therapy” course of action is not only entertaining, but pretty damn efficacious, too.

Ryan & Tatum: The O’Neals — the Oprah Winfrey Network’s latest airing of celebrity dirty laundry in the name of emotional rescue (see also: Why Not With Shania Twain and Finding Sarah) — is careful not to guarantee that its protagonists will actually achieve any lasting psychological breakthroughs as a result of turning their ongoing struggles into a weekly series.

As detailed in Tatum’s autobiography, Paper Life, the O’Neal family story reads like an epic cautionary tale about the excesses of fame. Neatly recapped in the opening sequences of The O’Neals, Tatum’s mother, the actress Joanna Moore, long ago abandoned Ryan and her two children after getting hooked on speed. As a single father, Ryan is alleged to have introduced his 10-year-old son, Griffin, to cocaine, and to have generally behaved like lout as he dated the likes of Bianca Jagger, Ursula Andress, Anjelica Huston and Diana Ross. After meeting Farah Fawcett, however, O’Neal absented himself from his often messy relationship with his eldest children. Confronting abandonment yet again, Tatum moved to New York, promptly married another famous hothead, John McEnroe, and eventually succumbed to speed and alcohol addiction.

Filled with divorce, 12-step programs, arrests, and Fawcett’s death, 25 years pass during which time father and daughter scarcely speak. But then, spooked by her father’s leukemia diagnosis, Tatum has an epiphany and decides to return to Los Angeles to attempt reconciliation.

“I’ve learned through my recovery process that if I don’t face the demons of my past. I can’t properly address my current life and move forward,” Tatum says in voiceover as the camera follows her unpacking framed pictures and setting them atop a bare mantle.

When it’s Ryan’s turn to stroll down memory lane, he does his best to portray himself as a victim in the wars that have ravaged his interpersonal relations, but comes off as incapable of taking responsibility for the decisions he’s made. “She was my first born, and that was monumental in my life,” he says sitting in the kitchen of his longtime Malibu home. “We were inseparable from the moment she was breathing air. I lost that wonderful connection, if it’s possible to get it back I’ll take it. She’s always mad at me and it ends up in heartache.”

For better (if you’re an audience member) or worse (if you’re either Ryan or Tatum) the show contains an incredible amount of dramatic tension as it slowly winds its way toward the moments when father and daughter actually share the same room. Perhaps the biggest unknown is whether Tatum’s drive to patch things up with her father will cause his temper to flare up and send her into a depressive spiral that will lead back to drug and alcohol abuse. “Can I have a relationship with my dad, and not jeopardize my sobriety?” Tatum wonders aloud. Happy times.

In the premiere episode, a friend hosts Tatum’s 47th birthday party. Invited to the proceedings, it’s unclear whether Ryan has the stomach for the touchy-feely reunion, a fact that brings Tatum right back to an all-too-familiar state of mind.

“Stressful situations like this, where I don’t know if he’s going to show up or what mood he’s going to be in if he does show up set off my anxiety,” she explains.

To be sure, the O’Neals works as a show precisely because it forces all of the family’s unresolved history comes to a head. By turns petulant, evasive and charming, Ryan is the charismatic wild card. Given his enmity for his son Griffin, who appears in still photos and as a disembodied voice during a phone in a conversation with Tatum, it is far from assured as to whether he’ll have the patience to stick with this therapy session for too long.

“I don’t get the guy, Mr. No Remorse,” Griffin says of his father who once knocked his son’s two front teeth out in a brawl.

So will The O’Neals somehow bring this dysfunctional family back together? Ryan and Tatum, who along with R. Greg Johnston (Celebrity Life Coach, The Osbournes) serve as executive producers on the show, would seem to have a vested stake in that eventual outcome. On the other hand, for a family that has already spent much so much of its time in front of the cameras, maybe the curative powers of reality television are but another illusion. Either way, OWN has tapped into an often uncomfortable, always entertaining in-progress drama that keeps you guessing.

Twitter: @writerknowles

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