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The Real O'Neals: A Rocky Start Leaves Room to Grow into Great Comedy

4 reasons it gets better

Malcolm Venable

The Real O'Nealshas real hurdles in its way.

The sitcom, about a Catholic family full of misfits including a teenager coming out as gay, has been protested by Catholic and conservative groups since ABC ordered its pilot. Just this week, The Catholic League placed an ad in the New York Times comparing Dan Savage, the columnist whose stories provided early inspiration for the series, to Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke.

But The Real O'Neals problems, sadly, have little to do with its controversy. It starts out on wobbly footing, and in the first few episodes it's not very funny.

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This is crushing considering the promising premise. Savage's involvement felt like a promise of something provocative, insightful and funny, like his columns. However, his participation in the show didn't lead to actual writing so the edge and bite his name implied seems to have been scrubbed clean and covered with the shiny happy sheen that works well on other ABC comedies.

There's a lot going on in the pilot: 16-year-old Kenny (Noah Galvin) comes out, his Catholic parents are divorcing and big brother Jimmy (Matthew Shively) and little sister Shannon (Bebe Wood) have something significant going on too. You're not entirely sure where to place your attention, making it hard for any of the individual issues to carry significant weight. More than half of marriages in America end in divorce and 20 years after Will & Grace, coming out can still be frightening and hard. But here, both announcements happen so fast that they feel like non-events, and that "Meh" permeates in spite of dialogue that makes us believe these are supposed to be a big deal.

The Real O'Neals doesn't mock religion, just family drama

Fortunately, once The Real O'Neals moves past its clunky pilot syndrome by the third episode, it reveals itself to be a charming comedy about a family full of neurotic nuts who have each other's backs no matter what. So while the two episodes airing Wednesday may leave you a bit cold, here are four reasons to give it a chance down the line.

1. The O'Neals' religious back story gives it good tension

The reality is, many people of faith struggle with how to accept family members who aren't heterosexual and/or gender conforming and it's this milieu that's the show's' best advantage. Faith is an important part of the family's life; instead of mocking faith and religion, it instead explores how a mom deals with a child who's not turned out how she hoped. "Faith gives their life structure," executive producer Stacy Traub said at the Television Critics Association winter previews in January. "We have episodes where a lot of stuff is going on, and at the end of the episode, [they say] 'Do you know what? We should go to church now.' It was never the butt of the joke." The O'Neals take their faith seriously; it's a connective tissue that gives the show warmth. "I can't tolerate when people condescend the faith. That's not the idea of it at all," added executive producer Todd Holland.

2. Eileen O'Neal is a lovably wound-too-tight matriarch

The veteran actress Martha Plimpton (who ironically grew up in New York City and has been an LGBT ally for decades) wins as a disapproving, Type-A control freak. "Eileen O'Neal is most confident living in her faith," Plimpton said in January. "She gets into her head a lot more." As a result, poor Eileen frequently reaches a boiling point and has breakdowns that are as comical as they are heart-warming since they typically lead to the revelation that nobody is perfect, and their flaws don't make the world burst into flames.

3. You'll root for Shannon O'Neal, the little sister/criminal mastermind

Cunning, manipulative and sneaky, Shannon is the real brains of the family. In the pilot, she's been pilfering money for a charity event to buy a car, and even keeps their priest in check when he claims to be taking a vow of poverty. "Does your Lexus know that?" she quips. "Shannon, of everyone in the family knows exactly what's going on," executive producer David Windsor said. "She knows she can use it to her advantage."

4. Kenny's neuroses and daydreams are endearing

Kenny is jittery, slightly obsessive compulsive and, like a lot of gay kids, a little paranoid about how to navigate family and school life. While this seems off-putting in those first episodes where everyone's anxiety levels seem to be set at DEFCON 5, Kenny's Woody Allen style worrying becomes cute. He's a mess before (and during) a first date, for example, in an episode airing later in March, dribbling "Am I going overboard? I wouldn't know. Cause this is my first time going overboard, on a date, with a guy." It's endearing. To boot, Kenny's fanciful imagination makes him prone to over-the-top daydreams, with Jesus appearing out of nowhere to talk to him a reoccurring show device. These are times when we get to love Kenny. We just need to get through the awkward patch first.

The Real O'Neals will air two episodes Wednesday March 2 at 8:30/7:30c and 9:30/8:30c on ABC.

It will air Tuesdays at 8:30/7:30c beginning March 8.