I took extra time selecting my outfit for an NYC sneak peek of the family sitcom The Real O’Neals at the LGBT Community Center last week. I knew Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn would be there to moderate a post-screening conversation with two stars and a writer from the show. I figured I’d manage my usual front-row spot in the audience and didn’t want Tim to be distracted by a bad look.
If you haven’t seen The Real O’Neals yet, I hope you’ll check it out. Even though gay teenagers on primetime television aren’t new, I think a family sitcom that centers on a boy coming out to his Irish Catholic parents is a welcome first. It’s a scenario that can be scary for both kids and parents, but this show does it with such love and humor that I think any viewer will be able to relax into any of those fears.
The focus in the show’s pilot was on 16-year-old Kenny who worried that coming out to his super-Catholic perfectionist mom would “literally kill her.” She is after all chairman of the church’s Bingo Bonanza and wants more than anything for her family to be featured in the church bulletin. And it’s at the Bingo Bonanza fundraiser that Kenny tells his family he’s gay, which is, of course, overheard by everyone. The second episode previewed was of Kenny’s first day back at St. Barklay’s High School after his coming out.
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~E. E. Cummings
Coming out to your parents and being bullied at school are serious issues for kids, so presenting those real-life, heart-racing experiences with humor is no easy task. But I think the writers have hit just the right balance of family fear and comedy. And I believe the messages to kids that things can (and should!) turn out okay is just as important as the message to parents that it won’t kill you if your kid is gay (or bisexual, transgender or queer). As Kenny says, he’s still the same person he was last week.
“I’ve never played a homophobe before.” ~Martha Plimpton
After the screening, Tim Gunn asked television newcomer Noah Galvin, who’s wonderful as Kenny, Martha Plimpton who brilliantly plays quintessential overbearing type-A mom Eileen, and writer/exec producer David Windsor how they would characterize their experience with the show.
Martha Plimpton said she saw it as an interesting opportunity, because she’d never played a homophobe before. The show presented a mother-son relationship she’d never seen before, particularly in a comedy. Viewers know she adores Kenny – she says he’s her favorite – but at the same time her fear and ignorance make it very difficult for her to reconcile his sexual orientation with her faith.
“I really wanted the chance to explore a religious Catholic mother re-learning who her son is while antagonizing him in his process toward adulthood and going through what he needs to go through in adolescence and assert himself,” Plimpton said. “I’d never seen that dynamic before, and I wanted to be a part of it. I thought it would be a way to give those people – those Eileens of the world – a view into the reality that they’re not going to die if they accept and love and change their thinking a bit.”
Tim Gunn, who will step out of the family’s television in an upcoming episode, concurred with Martha that hopefully her character Eileen, would help parents who are struggling with these issues. And he agreed with Noah and David who said ideally the show will help some young person out there, as well.
“It’s a little bit of a cliché,” Plimpton added, “but that’s because it’s true, that with comedy you can approach subjects that are difficult for some people and give them permission to see themselves in it. And I hope that happens.”
Kinda makes you want to watch, right?
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