• The Real O’Neals. (ABC America)Source: ABC America
A look at the new TV series about growing up gay in a Catholic family, which has outraged at least one US conservative religious group.
Bethonie Butler

The Washington Post
4 Mar 2016 - 12:04 PM  UPDATED 4 Mar 2016 - 12:04 PM

Somehow, ABC's new sitcom "The Real O'Neals" manages to feel both overdue and right on time.

You'd think we'd have seen a show like this before. But it's a perfect fit with the authenticity we demand from television now - even in sitcom land.

We're introduced to the O'Neals at post-church brunch in a Chicago restaurant. Image-obsessed mum Eileen (Martha Plimpton) places orders for the entire family, including her husband, Pat (Jay R. Ferguson), a cop, who takes his salmon with a lemon wedge in stride: "Can't have meat and potatoes for every meal, not till I'm in heaven."

"My mum always told us to behave as if Jesus were watching," our narrator, 16-year-old Kenny (Noah Galvin), tells us.

And just like that, a very chill Jesus appears, launching a series of amusing cameos by the man, er, deity. He says, "I'm gonna let her order for me, too, but then I'm just gonna turn it into whatever I want."

At the start of the pilot, which airs at 8:30 Wednesday, the O'Neals are a nice Irish Catholic family. By the end, they're a nice Irish Catholic family whose secrets have spilled out in spectacular fashion, over a loudspeaker at a bingo night for their parish.

The biggest of these secrets needs no spoiler alert. Promo images for the show picture the O'Neals with bright halos above their heads. Kenny's halo looks a bit different - it's a rainbow, because he's gay, get it? - and unlike his smiling relatives, he looks like a deer in headlights.

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Kenny spends much of the first episode trying to dissuade his girlfriend, Mimi, from initiating sex. ("Father Phil's here and he's wearing his collar.") After various unsuccessful attempts to thwart her advances - including flushing an entire box of condoms down the toilet - Kenny faces the truth of his sexuality.

Kenny's coming-out is central to the show, but the entire family has stuff to work through. Eileen and Pat are planning to divorce, daughter Shannon (Bebe Wood) has a penchant for lying and, in the flimsiest of plot points, eldest son Jimmy (Matt Shively), a high school wrestler, has an eating disorder that appears to resolve itself over pancakes.

Galvin is fantastic in his role, delivering lines with the awkward self-assurance of a teenager who is just starting to figure everything out. Even throwaway exchanges become devilishly funny as a result. Eileen: "What's in that closet?" Kenny: "Not me anymore!"

The series is based on an idea by LGBT activist and advice columnist Dan Savage, whose involvement in the project has prompted some protests from groups that consider some statements by Savage to be anti-Catholic. (The Catholic League took out an ad in Monday's New York Times in which President Bill Donohue scolded ABC). Savage is listed as an executive producer, but co-executive producer and director Todd Holland told The Seattle Times that Savage's role has been fairly limited.

The protests are unwarranted. "The Real O'Neals" has some fun with Catholicism, but faith isn't the butt of the joke in the show, which is ultimately an endearing story about a family that loves and supports one another. Go figure.

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"The Real O'Neals" isn't the sexually explicit Savage Love, either - this is network television, after all - but it does take one admirable quality from Savage's advice column, and that's honesty.

Add in a quirky charm that results in imagined scenes like the one in which Kenny roller-skates down the hallway of his Catholic school in sequins (to make a point, I promise) and the show fits in well with ABC's lineup of shows ("Black-ish," "Modern Family," "Fresh Off the Boat") that tell stories from the occasionally over-the-top perspectives of families that look, well, real.