'The Real O'Neals': TV Review

Nicole Wilder/ABC
'The Real O'Neals'
It's 'The Catholic Goldbergs.'

ABC's latest single-cam family comedy has a rough start, but shows potential.

Whatever the secret formula for cracking the 21st-century family sitcom may be, it's a recipe that only ABC appears to possess.

Since Modern Family premiered in 2009 as an out-of-the-box smash hit and an unparalleled Emmy juggernaut (and The Middle premiered that same year as a well-regarded success), other networks have repeatedly tried and failed to capture that domestic sitcom lightning. Meanwhile, ABC has built a steady network foundation on The Goldbergs, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. Even the net's failures in this genre, Trophy Wife mostly, were honorable.

All of the shows focus on surprisingly conventional nuclear families with three-plus children, strong moms, flawed dads and a string of discordant misadventures culminating in hugs and life lessons at the 29th minute. No matter the order or night you program them in, they all fit together nicely.

Joining the fray with a Wednesday audition before moving to Tuesdays is The Real O'Neals, another wholly compatible ABC family sitcom, most easily reduced to The Catholic Goldbergs. Of the ABC comedies, The Goldbergs took the longest to settle into its voice and rhythms for me, as it was nearly a season before I felt like Jeff Garlin stopped yelling everything, before creator Adam Goldberg was able to find characters for his fictionalized siblings and before the '80s namedropping became more than a crutch. Now, The Goldbergs is a show I regularly enjoy.

So I'm not worried that through four episodes, The Real O'Neals hasn't entirely clicked either. The early installments suffer from a surplus of voices, a surfeit of refined characters and clumsy plot mechanics, but the third and particularly the fourth episode, titled "The Real F Word," speak to a show that's finding its perspective and beginning to properly utilize what is a very good cast.

A lot of what you need to know about the early development of The Real O'Neals is that it was initially prominently pushed as being based on an idea by Dan Savage, but Savage isn't one of the writers on a pilot that has a lengthy list of story/teleplay credits, but no "created by" credit. Casey Johnson & David Windsor and Joshua Sternin & Jennifer Ventimilia get the ultimate credit for a pilot that flails in introducing us to the secret-keeping O'Neal clan of Chicago.

Regular churchgoers, the O'Neals look like a perfect family, thanks to the aggressive efforts of matriarch Eileen (Martha Plimpton, working without her Raising Hope malapropisms). But things are falling apart. Eileen and police officer hubby Pat (Jay R. Ferguson, sadly stripped of his Stan beard from Mad Men) are contemplating divorce. Oldest son Jimmy (Matt Shively) has an eating disorder and youngest daughter Shannon (Bebe Wood) is a grifter. Perhaps all of the hiding and self-absorption explain why everybody has missed that middle child Kenny (Noah Galvin) is gay and just waiting for the right time to come out of the closet.

ABC is smartly premiering The Real O'Neals with two episodes on Wednesday, because the opener is a premise pilot of the gawkiest sort, a 22-minute march to each O'Neal basically announcing, "And this expositional detail is why I'm actually an interesting character and now let's have weekly adventures." The pilot is a thing you have to get past and ABC is making it easy to just get on to the second episode, which also isn't very good, but at least it starts moving things forward, complete with a distracting and unamusing cameo from Jimmy Kimmel.

When the show was announced, several advocacy groups proposed boycotts without seeing a second of footage, mostly based on the idea that a Catholic family plus Savage's worldview would be scandalous. The Real O'Neals is not a promotional campaign for the Catholic Church by any means, but it's a story about a family whose faith is important to them, even if several of them have a complicated relationship with it, which seems like a fairly accurate representation of the way many people believe. Yes, Jesus is a character on the show, an idea that's always controversial, but Jesus' conversations with Kenny are such an underdeveloped part of The Real O'Neals that if you don't like them, you should probably just be quiet and see if they vanish on their own, because the series would be unchanged in their absence.

The biggest concern from a Catholic point-of-view is that the first three episodes all rely on some variation of the "Ultra-religious mom is clearly wrong about something and has to learn a lesson about inclusion" structure, which is the least interesting way to build a character like Eileen and also happens not to be part of that fourth episode. Eileen's conflict between what she's always believed and the new reality of her family will always be a factor in The Real O'Neals, but the show and Plimpton's performance both benefit from depicting that conflict as a nuanced thing, rather than a weekly arc from caricature to understanding.

Figuring out the characters in The Real O'Neals is an ongoing process, with the confident, assured and often hilariously theatrical Galvin the only actor who settles into his role immediately. The writers are just beginning to have fun with Galvin's physicality, integrating dancing and roller disco into his frequent fantasy sequences, and his grasp of Kenny's fast-talking nervousness, which is especially evident in the third episode featuring Kenny's awkward first date. Galvin's performance is the one most in tune with director Todd Holland's often whimsical single-camera direction. I'd compare it to the simpatico between Holland and the young Frankie Muniz at the very beginning of Malcolm in the Middle.

Now let's bring everybody else up to speed. By the end of the fourth episode, I was beginning to get the dark undertones to Shannon, and Wood, who proved her comic mettle on The New Normal, is very good with the character's matter-of-fact ethical looseness. There's a well-meaning sweetness to Pat, and Ferguson, always a hoot on Mad Men, gets a few laughs, but he's deferring to Plimpton's bigger character and could use more refining. And then the writers need to figure out what they want to do with Jimmy, because the eating disorder is all he's given in the first episode and that's a hard thing to construct a character around week-to-week, with Shively's best moments coming in the fourth episode when Jimmy defends Kenny against possibly imagined prejudice at school — moments that have nothing to do with anything established previously for the character. Nobody outside of the family has made even the slightest recurring impression so far, which limits world-building.

ABC's various comedies all shoot in Los Angeles, but they all use their fabricated home cities to find a specificity that The Real O'Neals is currently missing. The Chicago-ness is limited to the occasional Bears sweatshirt, but your Chicago-set show probably shouldn't be doing episodes set on St. Patrick's Day in which characters are playing outside on green grass beneath leaf-filled trees. This sounds like a quibble, but with all that these ABC family comedies have in common, what makes them distinctive are things like where they're set, when they're set and whatever cultural uniqueness they have. The Real O'Neals writers like current pop culture references too much to join The Goldbergs and Fresh Off The Boat in the flashback rotation, so Chicago and Catholicism are points of differentiation. Work with them.

Only time will tell if Paul Lee took the holy scrolls of the family sitcom with him when he departed ABC, but The Real O'Neals is yet another fit for the network. It doesn't start smoothly, but as we always say, comedies often require extra time to find their footing and with Plimpton, Ferguson and Galvin, the right pieces are in place and if the third and fourth episodes are an indication, The Real O'Neals may be heading in the right direction.

Cast: Noah Galvin, Jay R. Ferguson, Martha Plimpton, Bebe Wood, Matt Shively
Showrunners: David Windsor and Casey Johnson
Premiere date: Wednesday, March 2 at 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, and moves to Tuesdays at 8:30 on March 8 (ABC).