The Real O'Neals may not be great just yet, but it's already growing into itself. In "The Real F Word," Kenny returns to school for the first time since coming out. He's been dreading the return for self-evident reasons: He thinks that the other students will make fun of him or bully him, and he's not sure he can handle it. As we'll see, though, those concerns should have been the least of his worries.
The night before going back to school, Jimmy stays up with a sleepless Kenny and they binge-watch Game of Thrones. Jimmy vows to protect Kenny as if he were a one-handed knight and Kenny his little bastard brother. It's really touching to see how protective and supportive Jimmy is.
Sidenote: Has the show abandoned the story line about Jimmy battling anorexia? It hasn't been mentioned since the second episode, when Eileen's Jesus pancakes supposedly cured him. I was looking forward to how the writers would address such a delicate issue, but maybe it's best that it hasn't been mentioned again. It's possible Jimmy's eating disorder will reemerge, and maybe he's been hiding it to avoid his mother's censure.
At school, Kenny is self-conscious and thinks everyone is talking about him. A classmate tries to ask Kenny a question: "Is it true you're … " The pressure is too much for Kenny and he snaps, "That I'm a fag? Yes, I'm gay!" The classmate finishes, " … that you're running for treasurer?" Kenny weakly confirms that he is running, then he's sent to the vice-principal's office for saying a banned word. Vice-principal Murray (Matt Oberg) considers the situation, then concludes that Kenny committed a hate crime against himself, so it all cancels out and he can go back to class. However, Kenny doesn't want to run for treasurer anymore. If he gives a campaign speech, he'll have to subject himself to his classmates' stares. To get out of it, he starts thinking of ways to get sent home.
Nothing Kenny does works. VP Murray refuses to send Kenny home, and even admits that Kenny is getting special treatment because he's gay. (Basically, he says this so Kenny can't say the school is discriminating against him.) Kenny was so worried about being bullied, he didn't consider the possibility that he might be part of a protected class. As the first openly gay person in his Catholic school, he's in a privileged position.
Shannon tells Jimmy that Kenny was called the F-word, but before she can clarify that Kenny used the word to describe himself, Jimmy, First of His Name of the House O'Neal, attacks an asthmatic student named Kenny Lee. After his outburst, Jimmy gets sent home for the day. Instead of calling Eileen, he calls his aunt Jodi and hangs out at her hair salon. He confesses that he has to make sure he's at school, that way he can protect Kenny from anyone who would make fun of him. Jimmy is such a sweet boy! He's rapidly become my favorite character. As much as I love his support of his brother, I wish he had more of his own story line here.
Shannon convinces Kenny to stop trying to get sent home — he should just ditch class like she does. The plan is to stay in the basement until it's the time they're supposed to be home from school. If anyone catches them, she has a bag of lice to act as cover. Unfortunately, both Pat and Eileen are in the basement when Kenny and Shannon show up. Pat shares a story of his own humiliating past so Kenny will stop being afraid to run for treasurer. And it works! After the pep talk, Kenny goes back to school and makes his speech.
Meanwhile, Pat has been dealing with Eileen's lies about their current living situation. They go furniture shopping for the basement, but Eileen is so ashamed about their upcoming divorce that she keeps lying to people about the reason they're shopping. She's having a hard time coping with the change in her marriage, and like Kenny, she believes people will react more harshly than they do.
Kenny and Eileen both try lying to avoid public condemnation, but no one cares as much as they thought they would. Kenny wanted to call himself a terrible name before anyone else could, and Eileen wanted to maintain a happy façade, but the truth always wins out, one way or another. Seeing Kenny and Eileen go through similar challenges shows how alike they are as mother and son, and I think it also explains why Eileen is so hard on Kenny.
Four episodes in, The Real O'Neals has found solid footing. It's not the best family sitcom on air right now, but it's promising and it can hold its own. The O'Neals are an Irish Catholic family in Chicago, but as the show has already demonstrated, plenty of issues cross between cultures, whether it's dealing with divorce while maintaining stability for the children, or learning that your fears create more chaos than reality. I suspect there's much more of this to come, and I'm eager to see where The Real O'Neals heads next.