When I reviewed ABC’s line-up back in September, The Real O’Neals was the show I was most excited for. Loosely based on advice columnist Dan Savage’s own childhood, it was supposed to be a show about a teenage boy coming out to his Catholic family during the midst of his parents’ divorce. As it turns out, that “loosely” needs to be emphasized. Sure, it’s still about a teenage boy, Kenny, coming out just as his parents are splitting up, and the Catholic angle is hit pretty hard, especially in terms of Kenny’s mother Eileen. But this is not Savage’s story.
First off, it’s set in the present day and not the 1970s meaning that both the historical perspective and significance are drastically different. Yes, coming out now is still hard and in places still actually dangerous. But it’s not the same as coming out in 1970. Savage has discussed more than a few times what it was like to come to the understanding that he was gay, and what that meant for his life. Specifically that he would need to become a priest or he would need to learn how to fake being straight. Kenny’s character does away with that idea after a single episode. In an ironically meta way, Savage’s entire career has made things easier for the fictional version of himself to come out. It doesn’t mean the story is less powerful, but it is definitely different.
Secondly, this is not Chicago.
Definitely not Chicago.
Which I’m not complaining about only to nitpick. Chicago is inherent to the plot of the show. The O’Neals are supposed to be a blue-collar, Irish-Catholic Chicago family. One entire episode is about springtime in Chicago. It’s mentioned several times in every episode, and is part of the basic summary of the show. And they aren’t remotely close to getting the Chicago setting right. That’s not how the houses or shops look. That’s not what our train stations look like. And for fuck’s sake, where are all of the many, many apartment buildings? It’s distinctly un-Chicago. Which only makes the constant references to Chicago that much more jarring. It’s like those psych tests that have the word “blue” written in red, and you have to pick the color the word says. The show keeps shouting “Chicago!” but the font says “Maybe some kind of suburbs in southwest Michigan!”
I mean, remember how important Baltimore as a setting was to The Wire? So the whole show was shot here?
Yeah, that’s what it feels like every time.
Which is only really unfortunate because otherwise the show is great. There are still come clichéd moments (the bumbling father not sure how to deal with his daughter’s first period, mom’s divorced best friend drinking wine in the middle of the day), but they’re set against a couple in the middle of a divorce and, most importantly, a mother openly objecting to her son being gay. Eileen loves Kenny and wants him to be happy, but she can’t understand why he would “choose” to make his life that much harder for himself and therefore won’t accept his “decision.” It’s some real shit. But I’m hoping that what black-ish has done for race, The Real O’Neals will be able to do for sexual identity.
And while I’m waiting for that, I’m willing to overlook the atrocities the show insists on doing to my city so long as they keep me stocked with Martha Plimpton. I know we’ve crowned someone else the “Greatest TV Actor,” but maybe we need to open up that discussion again. Plimpton makes literally everything better, and she’s not an asshole. In the hands of a lesser actress, Eileen O’Neal could be either naively incompetent or indifferently cruel. But Plimpton walks the very fine line down intentionally ignorant. She has a code, that code protects her family and makes them good. So, goddamnit, everyone will following that effing code even if it’s killing them. I have known those mothers. The fact that Plimpton can be funny while being that specific brand of hardcore bitch should win her the Emmy right now.
If, in fact, the show is never able to improve (which based on the episodes so far, I don’t see happening. It’s already getting better), it’s still managed to give us not just a young, gay character but a young, gay character with his own active voice. This is Kenny’s show and his perspective. It’s not perfect, it’s slightly whitewashed, and they could stand to make the characters slightly less perfect, but it is a young, gay man telling his coming out story on a network sitcom. And that’s definitely something 14-year-old Dan Savage never would have believed.