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The Real O’Neals is a feel-great sitcom about a gay teen’s coming out

ABC's frank and funny show is all about family, acceptance, and laughing about it.

The O'Neals: one of TV's best, and most complicated sitcom families.
ABC

In The Real O'Neals' season one finale, high schooler Kenny finds himself feeling dejected. His first prom was so close to being perfect; he even had his first kiss, to the tune of the very ABBA song he'd always dreamed would be its soundtrack ("Take a Chance on Me," naturally).

But even Kenny's unbridled enthusiasm — wonderfully acted by the very funny Noah Galvin — can't distract from his disappointment in the night's lack of fireworks. (Never forget: There's nothing on this earth more overhyped and overrated as prom, except for maybe T-shirt cannons.)

"I was expecting Fourth of July, and it felt more like ... August 9," he says to his older brother and mom. "It was just ordinary."

"You know what that means," his mother says. "You're normal."

It would be a sweet moment for any family sitcom, but for The Real O'Neals, it's also a monumental one. Ever since Kenny came out as gay in the series' first episode, his strict Catholic mother, Eileen (Martha Plimpton), has had an incredibly hard time wrapping her head around the fact that her family doesn't resemble the picture-perfect one she had always imagined.

Telling her son that he's normal, and meaning it, represents a huge step forward from making him pretend he's straight to placate the family's neighbors, as she did in the beginning of the season.

The same holds true for the show, which improved by leaps and bounds since its muddled pilot. When The Real O'Neals premiered on March 2, it crammed in so many revelations about the titular family — Kenny's gay! His parents are getting divorced! His brother's got an eating disorder, and his sister is a kleptomaniac! — that everyone was jostling for attention without anyone but the supremely talented Galvin commanding much of it.

But the show has since evolved into a real, open-hearted delight. It pared down its competing storylines, focusing on Kenny coming to grips with his new status quo and Eileen and her husband Pat (Mad Men's Jay R. Ferguson) navigating a rare Catholic divorce. It decided against typical sibling rivalries, allowing Kenny, his eager brother Jimmy (Matt Shively), and diabolical sister Shannon (Bebe Wood) to be enthusiastic partners in crime.

It let Eileen experience significant speed bumps on her journey toward acceptance, showing the conflict of a mother who firmly believes in religious doctrine but who loves her son to death and back.

It treated Kenny's coming-out story not only with respect but with personality, warmth, and, most importantly, specificity. As the season progressed, Kenny grappled with the question of how to date and where to find other gay high schoolers to commiserate with. He worried about what it means to be a "good" gay man, and how he might fit into the LGBTQ community. He often spaced out and lost himself in elaborate fantasies starring himself and a cute boy.

So he's understandably disappointed in the season finale, when the particular fantasy of a perfect prom doesn't go quite like he'd imagined. But with the support of his wacky family tearing up the dance floor, Kenny ends up having an amazing time anyway.

It's a setup and conclusion that could have happened on any number of sitcoms featuring high schoolers. But there's something very special about the fact that an otherwise typical prom story centers on a gay teen, without any snark. Kenny's just a boy, standing in front of another boy, asking him to take a chance on him.

Kenny's story is a coming-out story, but it's also one of adolescence and acceptance. Both Kenny and his family have to learn to accept him the way he is, and thanks to The Real O'Neals' smart course corrections and Galvin's excellent comic timing, that story has really become something special.

The first season finale of The Real O'Neals is currently available oHulu. The second season premieres October 11 at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.