If you want to measure how far TV representations of queer people have come since Will & Grace’s attractive gay leads spent entire seasons without any romantic action, please note that on ABC’s new sitcom The Real O’Neals, only six episodes elapse between 16-year-old Kenny O’Neal’s coming out and his first gay date. In another early episode, Kenny becomes the first out gay kid in his Catholic school, where he soon lands in the vice principal’s office for calling himself “the gay F word.” (He wanted to put it out there before any of the other kids had a chance to use it on him.) Later, his brother, Jimmy, interrupts a school assembly to announce to his fellow students that he loves his gay brother. And before the season is over, Kenny will have his first gay kiss and go to prom with a boy.
The Real O’Neals is loosely based on Dan Savage’s experience growing up gay in an Irish Catholic family with a father who was a Chicago cop; but according to the show’s creators, Casey Johnson and David Windsor, the Savage connection doesn’t go much deeper than that. Still, as Johnson told me when we chatted at the Television Critics Association gathering in January, “this is thematically very much in the world of It Gets Better.” In the pilot—which airs on ABC this Wednesday, March 2, before the show moves to its regular Tuesday night time slot on March 8—Kenny’s coming out kick-starts a round of family truth-telling that ends with parents Eileen (a wonderfully stern Martha Plimpton) and Pat (a clean-shaven Jay R. Ferguson) announcing that they’re getting divorced. Although the family is staunchly Catholic—this may be the first network comedy to air a Lent episode—it isn’t religious dogma that makes Eileen want to keep these developments a secret; it’s her need to project the image of a perfect family to her neighbors, fellow parishioners, and even complete strangers at the furniture store.
Although Kenny’s gayness is just one of the long-buried family secrets revealed in the pilot, it quickly becomes the main focus of the show, partly because he provides the voiceover that’s apparently compulsory in ABC sitcoms these days, and partly because Kenny is the only character whose inner life is revealed in brief fantasy sequences. Kenny talks with a shirtless cologne model in the bathroom mirror, chats with Jesus Christ at a family dinner, does a perfectly choreographed disco dance with his first gay crush, and executes a rainbow-flag-waving roller disco sequence to “I’m Coming Out” as he contemplates his first day at school as an openly gay teen.
It helps that Noah Galvin is so charming in the role of Kenny—and, when it comes to understanding the character, that Galvin is openly gay and went through some of the issues Kenny contends with a few years ago. (Galvin is 20.) While creators Johnson and Windsor are straight, Windsor grew up with two gay dads, and they say that about half the writing team is gay. (Johnson and Windsor aren’t Catholic, either, but four of the eight writers are.) Executive producer Todd Holland, who is openly gay, praised Galvin’s confidence, but said that his biggest challenge when directing him was having to remind him that Kenny was freshly out of the closet: “We’d say, ‘Noah, you just came out last week! You’re so confident as a gay man. It’s too much, too fast. You’re trying out your new freedom, your new language. It shouldn’t be that quick. You’ve been hiding it for all these years.’ ”
Twenty-two years ago, Holland directed the episode of My So-Called Life in which gay character Rickie Vasquez went to the school dance. “That was so thrilling to me, because I was actually photographing another boy from Rickie’s point of view—I’d never been asked to do that before—but it was a train wreck of unrequited love.” In 2016, in a primetime sitcom, Holland said, “I feel like we found a way to let Kenny really be a gay kid who’s discovering who he is in the world and how he relates to other boys his age.” In The Real O’Neals, Kenny will meet another gay boy he’s attracted to and take him to prom. Whether or not it works out, “he’s on that journey we’re all on of finding his place in the romantic world.” It’s ridiculous that this should seem so revolutionary. But it does.