ABC’s The Real O’Neals concludes its first season on Tuesday with the comfort of knowing it will be back in the fall: The midseason family comedy was picked up for a second season, a deserving result for a charming show that showed promise over the course of its 13 episodes.
The show’s most successful element is the narrative at its center: Every member of the O’Neal family begins the show in some state of crisis (the parents are divorcing, the eldest son is anorexic, the daughter is a thief), but Kenny O’Neal (Noah Galvin) is coming out as gay with a strict Irish Catholic mother and no idea how to go about embracing the fact of his sexuality beyond knowing it to be true. ABC is currently full of family comedies—Fresh Off The Boat, The Middle, The Goldbergs, and Modern Family all also feature families with three children—but Kenny’s exploration of his sexuality sets The Real O’Neals apart, and has been brought to life well by Galvin and the show’s writers.
But it’s also been a little confusing. After coming out in the pilot, Kenny spends the following episode breaking up with his girlfriend and weathering his mother’s reaction, which are logical next steps. Then in the very next episode, he’s crushing on an activist and going on his first “gay date,” which seems like a big step forward. It’s even weirder when, in the following episode, he’s only just coming out at school, which seems like it logically should have appeared before he started dating. While it’s true that no coming-out narrative is entirely linear, the “two steps forward, two steps back” nature of Kenny’s story was puzzling, especially as it continued throughout the season.
But then I realized this was not a new sensation. I experienced a version of it earlier this spring when revisiting the first season of ABC’s Happy Endings on Hulu, where we see characters inside of Dave’s food truck before Dave has actually purchased said food truck. I was similarly puzzled back in 2013, when Fox’s Enlisted suddenly moved forward to a key turning point in a romantic relationship before that romantic relationship had been established. And while it’s a bit fuzzier, I recall thinking ABC’s Better Off Ted was jumping around more than I’d expect back in 2009. Then I realized all of these shows have something in common: They are all midseason sitcoms, and all of them aired their first season episodes “out of order” (meaning, in this case, out of the order in which they were written and produced). And we can now add The Real O’Neals to this list.
Airing sitcom episodes out of order has never been entirely inconspicuous, but recent years have made the practice more visible. Wikipedia users have created awareness by denoting each episode’s “production code,” which in its final three digits indicates the episode’s place within the production order. Sometimes more ambitious shows will produce scripts out of order for logistical reasons—Community is a good example. With midseason shows like Happy Endings or The Real O’Neals, the reason is simpler: Most of the episodes have already been produced by the time these shows debut, which means the network can look at the episodes produced and determine which episodes they feel best represent the show. For Happy Endings, this meant throwing out the linear narrative in favor of jumping straight into the fifth and ninth episodes—the original second and third episodes wouldn’t air until after the tenth episode.
While my first instinct is to decry this as sacrilege, there’s reason for micromanagement. Midseason sitcoms come when viewers have already sampled fall’s new series, and often have very little time to make an impression with viewers. In the case of Happy Endings, ABC rushed past the messy aftermath of the show’s pilot—specifically Dave and Alex’s breakup—to episodes that featured more of the hangout vibe the show would eventually perfect over its too-short three season run. But rushing ahead is not without consequences: While the show’s other characters felt pretty fully formed early on, Dave and Alex ended up stranded, with their character-building arcs lost in the narrative shuffle. It took the show much of the first season to get a handle on Alex, and arguably Dave never entirely recovered from his uneven introduction. The food truck might have created a direct continuity error, but character development that was ultimately compromised. While it’s true that sitcoms are typically less serialized than dramatic series, making it easier to air episodes out of order, the increasing serialization of the sitcom makes doing so elegantly more challenging.
While hindsight helps us place the decision with Happy Endings in perspective, it’s harder to get a clear handle on ABC’s logic for airing The Real O’Neals in the order it did. The choice to push forward “The Real Lent”—the sixth episode produced, but the third to air—as the show’s first episode in its regular timeslot could have happened for many reasons. It’s a big family episode, reinforcing the Irish Catholic themes of the pilot, and it’s also just a good episode in terms of quality. But its impact on the storytelling comes primarily through Kenny’s storyline where he goes on his first “gay date,” and the episode being moved up to this location can be read in two different ways. Optimistically, it foregrounds the show’s interest in embracing Kenny’s sexuality, and making a gay teenager the main protagonist—and in this episode a romantic lead—of a network sitcom. However, cynically (and supported by the fact that none of the promos for the episode feature Kenny’s storyline), it also rushes past episodes featuring some of the more difficult and specific moments of coming out—being out at school, interacting with the local gay community, learning the sexual linguistics of gay culture—to an experience the episode frames as more universal. Kenny is anxious about his date in ways that are not necessarily distinct from any teenager’s first “normal” date.
The Real O’Neals never attempts to erase Kenny’s sexuality, to its credit, but the non-linear way his coming-out story unfolds breaks up the sense that the show is “about” his sexuality. “The Real Man”—the 11th episode produced, but the fifth aired—is thematically complex, exploring notions of masculinity among Kenny, his father, and his older brother Jimmy, but it also comes past the point where Kenny’s sexuality feels like a point of conflict within his family. Moving it forward gets the show to the “post-gay” place—as Kenny’s sexuality differentiates but does not define his character. Viewers who may not necessarily be engaged by the more specific elements of Kenny’s journey see that the show may not always be as focused on Kenny’s sexuality moving forward.
Despite the confusion, though, Kenny’s story nonetheless resonates because “coming out” is a messy process, and any teenager in his position will continually face new challenges that lead to regression. While I think the story would work better in its linear form, it works well enough in this form that whatever logic drove ABC to rework the episode order—which could have just been “which episodes we think are best”—has not stripped the show of its most distinctive quality. However, it’s important to also consider the collateral damage, which comes in the form of Kenny’s parents, Eileen (Martha Plimpton) and Pat (Jay R. Ferguson). After announcing their divorce in the first episode, their narrative in the season is a gradual adaptation to their new situation, and being both single people and parents following this major life change. But while Galvin’s narration helps center Kenny’s story, Eileen and Pat are left largely to float around the narrative, making their characterization difficult to pin down.
Their basic situation technically never changes: Throughout the season, Pat has moved into the family basement, allowing the show to remain a “family” sitcom despite an impending divorce. However, their reactions to Kenny and their relationship with one another evolved in meaningful ways, but this becomes confused when viewed out of order. While Eileen’s views never allows her to be entirely comfortable with Kenny’s sexuality, the moving up of episodes later in the season where she seems more comfortable makes it awkward to see her suddenly regress—Vulture’s recapper wrote two weeks ago “I should have held my praise about Eileen’s character growth for a little longer,” not realizing that that episode was actually intended to air before the key turning point in question. And while Pat’s acceptance level for Kenny remains fairly consistent, the scrambling of his tentative steps into the dating world make him seem stuck in a fairly sad cycle, and the divorce storyline has failed to move past the initial setup in the order in which it’s been presented to audiences.
Vulture ultimately gives the show credit for this presumably inadvertent regression, writing that “Eileen’s struggles in ‘The Real Other Woman’ let us see that acceptance doesn’t happen all at once. Sometimes, people stumble.” But the fact is that the writers intended Eileen’s character to develop in a linear fashion, but that has been stripped away. A crucial episode for the character’s concern over the community’s perception of her family was pushed from fourth to eighth, for example, delaying a key moment of self-awareness from a character that often lacks it. And when the show finally brought the couple to a key turning point in last week’s (disappointing) penultimate episode, noting that it was “time” to remove their wedding rings, the scrambling of time was readily apparent. Depicting divorced parents is actually very rare for TV sitcoms, and comes with inherent challenges, but the episode order has only further muddled that relationship and individual character development in ways that will need to be resolved in the second season.
Despite this, the fact that The Real O’Neals drew enough audience interest to be renewed for a second season will probably do nothing to dissuade ABC from airing episodes out of order for future midseason sitcoms. Most viewers probably didn’t even realize the episodes were being moved around, and the show’s main focus—Kenny’s storyline—has still resonated and allowed the show to differentiate itself. Now, after using scheduling to shape how the show was perceived, ABC can go back to the showrunners and have a more informed discussion of the show they want to make, and it’s likely that the second season will be able to air in something closer to its intended order, as was the case with the second season of Happy Endings. For better or worse, past experience dictates that broadcast networks can get away with airing midseason sitcoms out of order, and that’s unlikely to change in the future.
However, the arrival of Happy Endings on Hulu raises a different concern. Despite the fact that the series’ first season was returned to its proper production order on the season one DVD, the series arrived on Hulu in its broadcast order—complete with the sixth episode inexplicably airing after the intended finale—on the streaming site. The same happened with the DVD release of Enlisted, which shipped discs through Amazon in the chaotic broadcast order before series creator Kevin Biegel and executive producer Mike Royce worked to get the proper order restored. At the point where shows are living on streaming sites after they have concluded, or released on DVD to their fans after being canceled, the idea that their episode orders should still be dictated by network mandates designed for linear viewership is silly. Shows should ideally be watched in the order their creators intended, and in the order that makes the most sense for the character arcs and storylines involved, so there’s no reason why Happy Endings producer Sony shouldn’t be going into Hulu and placing the show’s episodes back in the proper order.
But I would be surprised if The Real O’Neals is ever restored to its intended order. In the current marketplace, ABC will be counting on viewers discovering The Real O’Neals on Hulu, ABC.com, or some other streaming service between seasons, and it’s probable that the network will feel the broadcast order they devised will be the right way for those viewers to experience the show as well. Whereas DVD purchases come with built-in investment—either as existing fans of the show or as someone who has already spent money to purchase it—streaming for ongoing series is built on the same logics as broadcast: With so many options available, they want you to get hooked as quickly as possible, lest you switch over to any of the dozens of other options on the service in question.
Although market conditions will likely continue this practice, and potentially extend the scrambling of midseason sitcom narratives to streaming services for perpetuity, this non-linear reality has ultimately given viewers their own solution: with the Wikipedia page open in another tab, one can easily go on Hulu and watch The Real O’Neals in its production order to catch up ahead of season two, and new viewers to Happy Endings could reconstruct the original order of episodes with some amount of difficulty (and flummox Hulu’s algorithms in the process). Whether or not people should have to go through this may remain a point of contention, but the ”success” of the non-linear rollout for The Real O’Neals suggests it’s going to remain up to the viewers to restore order in the realm of midseason sitcom scheduling.