Oh, The Real O’Neals. How I’ve waited for a little show like you to come along. ABC’s new sitcom, which premiered Wednesday night, follows an Irish Catholic family in the suburbs of Chicago as they realize they’re not quite as holy as they thought. Sure, some of the jokes don’t land, and a few of the classic sitcom tropes have been overdone, but how refreshing to see a Catholic family on TV that’s neither a saintly stereotype nor a cruel villain, just flawed and figuring it out. For a long time all we had were caricatures, but this merry band of weirdos joins The Mindy Project’s Danny Castellano and the Villanueva women of Jane the Virgin as TV’s most nuanced depictions of Catholic families. I’d call it a Renaissance, but that wasn’t a great time for us. Here are five miracles the O’Neals performed that hit me right in the bleeding heart.
We meet the O’Neals as they’re preparing for their parish’s bingo night. Every church has their version of a big fund-raiser. In some places it’s a carnival — for my community, it was a fashion show (this is Staten Island we’re talking about). Unlike private school, where parents just write huge checks, at Catholic school, we had to hustle for our donation money because nobody had any. So all the parents get together and compete to prove who can be the most involved and bring in more cash. This is where “big-ticket items” come in. For the O’Neals, it was their family’s canoe. In Staten Island, it was box seats at a Yankees game or a gift card to a swanky salon. Once the item is secured, it needs to be presented for display at the event. Now, there is a woman in every parish who is good at tying bows. This is a very particular skill set. Her handiwork could put Martha Stewart and those ladies who teach gift-wrapping classes at Michaels to shame. Her basement is stocked with spools of sateen ribbon and rolls of candy-colored cellophane. The bigger the basket, the closer to God. When mama Eileen O’Neal stops mid-argument to compliment the presentation of a woman’s raffle prize, understand that for these women, there is no greater honor.
Back in the days before smartphones, you had nothing to look at before church started. You had to sit in the pew and rely on your own creativity to pass the time. Sometimes I imagined the organ pipes were skyscrapers or counted the threads in the seat cushions. Only those considered heathens brought toys or coloring books to placate their kids. But if you were lucky, one of your parents picked up a parish bulletin on the way in and you could flip through the pages to occupy yourself. And man, were those pages stacked! Wedding announcements, baptism dates, funeral schedules, who met their fundraising goals and when, events held by local charities, academic awards received by students. The gossip was hot. The fact that the O’Neals were dying to have their photo on the cover of the bulletin is understandable. Only the Bible is a more revered text.
“Does Your Lexus Know That?”
Let me set something straight for you — priests have a ton of money. In my church there was once a scandal over the rectory’s renovated kitchen. It was revealed that the priest’s home was decked out with stainless-steel appliances and marble countertops using the parishioners’ donation money. Did I ever see this kitchen? No. For all I know Mario Batali himself could be in there right now whipping up a bolognese. So when the youngest O’Neal, Shannon, coaxes a priest into buying more bingo cards by mentioning his luxury car, she hits him right where it hurts. The guilt got him to fork over the cash because he knew his vow of poverty was a farce.
Kenny Christopher Sebastian O’Neal
Every Catholic has four names. Sure, you’ve got your first name, your middle name, and your last name, like most people, but there’s also a magical moniker in the third spot: your confirmation name. Now, a confirmation is like a bar mitzvah. It’s a ceremony where the church deems you an adult, and to help you through this responsibility, you take on the name of a saint whose story is meant to guide you on your new journey. But this name is only mentioned in extreme cases of guilt, when the person invoking it really wants to press on you how unholy you’re being. So when Eileen uses all four names to address our protagonist Kenny during an argument about sex, I knew he was in trouble, because my father only called me Tara Ann Theresa Abell (yes, my initials are TATA) when the full wrath of God was being called upon.
The main theme of this premiere is how the silence among the O’Neals keeps them from being honest with each other. The guilt they all feel about their perceived sins holds them back from being their true selves and connecting with each other in a meaningful way. The secret Mom and Dad O’Neal keep about seeing a therapist to help with their marriage feels especially real. I’ve been in therapy for about three years, and I can count on one hand the number of times my family has brought it up. If a show like The Real O’Neals can start meaningful conversations and get families talking about personal issues that really matter, then that’s a miracle we can all believe in.