For all its pretense at getting to what's "real," The Real O'Neals is as tacky and glib as any sitcom on the air, treating the supposedly serious issues of its characters with a dismissive shrug. There's no sense of the real difficulties facing the formerly upstanding Catholic O'Neal family as they deal with various hidden problems, all of which bubble to the surface in the overwrought pilot episode. Parents Eileen (Martha Plimpton) and Pat (Jay R. Ferguson, a long way from Mad Men) are getting divorced, football-playing older son Jimmy (Matthew Shively) is anorexic, daughter Shannon (Bebe Wood) is a kleptomaniac, and younger son Kenny (Noah Galvin), who also narrates the show, is gay.
Kenny's coming-out motivates the explosion of family secrets, but his newly expressed sexuality and his mother's negative response to it are depicted with the same breeziness, just wacky quirks among this deeply repressed family. Advice columnist and outspoken LGBT activist Dan Savage is one of the producers (and a loose inspiration for the main character), but none of his passionate advocacy comes across in the way the show portrays Kenny. Kenny's siblings' problems are given even less weight, to the point at which it's hard to understand what place they even have in the show's concept. It would be one thing if this was a challenging show mining dark humor from uncomfortable situations, but it's just as corny and contrived as the average family comedy. The actual jokes, with wacky mishaps and tiresome fantasy sequences (check out the ABC cross-promotion with the extensive Jimmy Kimmel guest spot in the second episode!), don't live up to the potential complexity of the concept.
As she proved on Raising Hope, Plimpton is great at playing an exasperated matriarch, and Ferguson, whose work on Mad Men was underrated, has a few solid moments as the clueless dad. The kids are less impressive, especially Galvin, whose voiceover narration should tie the show together. His observations are neither funny nor insightful, over-explaining the central concept (that the seemingly perfect family is not actually perfect) in a way that only highlights the disconnect between what the show is aiming for and what it actually accomplishes.