Matt Shively (left), Martha Plimpton, and Noah Galvin

The Real O’Neals had an uneven first season. As the cancellations rained down, I assumed it would be among the first to go. The show wasn’t a darling among critics like The Grinder and it didn’t have an ensemble as skilled as Grandfathered’s. Episodes aired out of order, stalling character development. Martha Plimpton’s Eileen would appear to make progress towards accepting Kenny’s gayness, only to regress in the next episode. I was prepared to write a One-Season Wonder piece on the quirky little show.

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In a sea of family sitcoms like The Middle, The Goldbergs, Black-ish, and Fresh Off The Boat, something about The Real O’Neals premise seemed outdated and quaint. The father is a cop, yet is far removed from any of the political implications that come up when the Chicago Police Department is a topic of conversation. The stay-at-home mom is a devout Catholic. During the pilot, I had to remind myself that the show was set in today’s world. As the show found its voice, the O’Neals differentiated their place from the Johnsons and Goldbergs of ABC. Their religion wasn’t a relic of the past or a joke. Instead, it anchored emotional moments like Eileen standing up to her mother’s homophobia while adding humor to Kenny’s crises of faith as Jesus himself made appearances.

I was ecstatic when I found out the show survived. Tonight’s finale perfectly summed up why—featuring the best of what The Real O’Neals can do while highlighting the problems the show can hopefully work through in a second season. The O’Neals work best when they work off each other and the show is aware of this. Even though this is a prom episode, events transpire that force Jimmy and Kenny to pair off while Pat and Shannon finally get a chance to bond. Plimpton, of course, doesn’t need any hand-holding as she alone carries her plot through hell and high water. This episode could‘ve strictly focused on Kenny and his first “boy kiss” to cement just how far he’s come since the pilot. Instead, almost all of the O’Neals are given a chance to show off. Noah Galvin and Matt Shively even turn in a dance routine that made me wonder why anyone would want to stick around for Dancing With The Stars afterwards.

Shannon finally develops her character beyond “practical, lacks empathy” (a role defined by Black-ish’s Diane at this point) and makes a great case for expanding Bebe Wood’s role next season. Even though she lands a “promposal,” she still wants to skip the dance because she assumes it’ll only be disappointing. Instead, she realizes too late that she does have feelings for the boy she blew off. Even though these feelings are quickly rationalized away by the episode’s end, it’s nice to watch Kenny and Shannon switch places for a moment.

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You see, Kenny is eager for the magical, Abba-filled prom he’s always dreamed of, despite not having a date. When the music finally swells and Kenny lands his “Viking Prince From The Land Of Abba”, The Real O’Neals doubles down on the realism that has highlighted the season’s best moments. Kenny’s first kiss is just a kiss. Instead of admonishing him, Eileen reassures him; it means he’s “just normal.” As fun as it is to see him demand the right to bring a boy to prom in the cold open, his principal’s quick acquiescence before Kenny can even finish his speech is what allows the character to develop into plots beyond the difficulties of being gay and catholic.

Noah Galvin

While the two youngest O’Neals earn that second season renewal, Pat, Jimmy and Jodi suffer from the lack of serialization and reliance on family sitcom archetypes that plagued the season. Even though we’ve seen Pat take big steps like moving into the basement and going on a date, I still fail to find him interesting as a character. He’s just a good, dumb dad and in this episode he simply wishes to do the Tootsie Roll and eat. If I didn’t spend the majority of his time on screen imagining him as Stan Rizzo (in witness protection, where he’s forced to change his name, but still has a thing for Catholic women), I’d hardly remember anything the O’Neals patriarch accomplished this season.

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The same goes for Jimmy, whose stereotypical “dumb, athletic brother” can’t compare to The Goldberg’s Big Tasty. Shively hints at something of depth in his performance (seriously, the kid “really flickers in and out” when he jumps from idiot to schemer), but the character is still at his most interesting when his plot revolves around Kenny. When he finally kisses the girl he’s been after all season and assures Eileen he’s come to terms with the divorce, the moment doesn’t land. His feelings over the divorce have mostly been played as a joke all season to show his naïveté in comparison to Shannon and Kenny. His interactions with girls are awkward, but they don’t seem based in the insecurity that drove his anorexia in the pilot (…by the way, whatever happened to that plot?).

That leaves Jodi. Poor Jodi. Remember in “The Real Retreat” when Jodi admonishes Pat and Eileen for taking advantage of her and The Real O’Neals thought they could trick us into thinking she was a fully realized character? Again, Jodi is given little to do but act as an off-screen guide for Eileen. When Eileen asks Jodi for help ending her relationship with her kids’ principal, I thought we’d finally get some real bonding scenes between the two women. Instead, Jodi simply says she’s been waiting for this moment her entire life and then she’s just gone for the rest of the episode. Mary Hollis Inboden has been a champ as she pulls a character out of Jodi’s horrific dating stories, but creating a real friendship between her and Eileen would give her a lot more to work with. Even though Eileen is the only character who can successfully carry a plot outside of the family’s actions, at times she seems too removed; Jodi helps alleviate that issue.

The fact that this was a middle-of-the-road episode proves the issues The Real O’Neals has to work out next season aren’t that bad. I’m definitely willing to watch through those growing pains if it means more theremin covers of “Come On Eileen” and Kenny’s hallucinations.

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Stray Observations

  • Well, that’s season one! There’s not enough space here to cover all the great moments that made this show worthy of renewal, but weekly coverage next season should make the case clear.
  • “The most romantic night of your life could happen in a random parking lot on a Tuesday night.” - This line from Shannon and Pat’s subsequent reaction and dismissal made me wish we’d seen more of them together this season.
  • Wonderful use of the blurred out “Fuck!” that The Goldberg’s Beverly made famous.
  • “He’s short-tall: not intimidating, but he can still hold me” - I live for moments like these from Kenny
  • Noah Galvin, Matt Shively, and Bebe Wood deserve a huge shout out. It’s hard to find good child/teen actors and even harder to find a group that gels so well together.
  • “Martha Plimpton is a national treasure and hero” is a line I wrote in my notes.
  • I never want to hear the word “promposal” again.

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