In a quiet way, The Real O'Neals has pushed a revolutionary amount of character growth during its first season. Sitcoms characters generally remain in stasis, as the same stubborn issues provide a comfortable familiarity to the audience. The Real O'Neals knows how to keep its quirkiness while allowing its characters the richness of maturation. An important part of any family sitcom, of course, are the life lessons imparted. A show can't promote healthy decisions if its characters don't learn anything.
This brings us to "The Real Retreat," in which Kenny is excited about the Catholic Youth Retreat that's held at school. He wants to be Faith Leader, which will help him complete his Catholic EGOT dreams, inspired by Rita Moreno. He's been head altar boy, class treasurer, and Elks Club teen of the month. While Kenny dreams of student leadership, Shannon reveals her intricate plans to score a first kiss. And Jimmy hopes to extend his reign as King of Pranks.
While the kids are away, Pat and Eileen try to use the weekend to get settle into singlehood. They have no real plans, but when Eileen sees Pat watching a game with his coworker Sam, a recently divorced lesbian, she becomes jealous. Even though she poses no romantic threat, Eileen still calls Jodi over to spy on Pat and Sam. Sam reveals she's been trying to do new things since her divorce, including candle-making, which is right up Eileen's alley. Soon Eileen has commandeered Sam's friendship … and now Pat is jealous.
Let's take a moment to appreciate how the show avoided a couple of clichés here. Once the kids were gone, it was easy to assume Pat and Eileen would get bored, start drinking, then find themselves back in bed together. This is the second time Pat and Eileen have been alone but didn't fall into the familiar trap of returning to married intimacy. Does this mean they are comfortable with the end of their marriage? They've remained friends and good parents, but it seems the romantic part of their relationship is no longer a concern. That particular storyline isn't completely out of the picture, but it's good to see that the show can avoid drawing from such a familiar well.
It's also great to see Eileen connect with a lesbian character. That's something that, at first glance, would seem to make Eileen uncomfortable. As Pat later says, it shows a lot of maturity on her part. Eileen has a hard time making friends, as we saw during the trials of her book club, so for her to connect to someone outside of her comfort zone, well, it's a big sign of progress. Hopefully, it will also strengthen her relationship with Kenny.
Because Pat is jealous of the growing friendship between Sam and Eileen, he calls Jodi from his basement landline. He wants her to bring over her karaoke machine. For the second time, Jodi immediately interrupts her manicure to attend the needs of her friends. While Eileen teaches Sam how to remove air bubbles from hot candle wax, Pat and Jodi crank out Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." (Shout out to Jay R. Ferguson's voice!) Pat invites Sam to sing. Refusing to be outdone, Eileen joins in, surprising both Pat and Jodi. Jodi has begged Eileen to sing karaoke many times, but Eileen would never give in. Pat and Eileen begin a battle for Sam's attention, and it's too much for her. Sam's played third-wheel to a marriage before, so she's not interested this time around. She encourages Pat and Eileen to work out their issues and leaves. Jodi is upset that Pat and Eileen would fight over a new best friend when she's constantly there for them. She takes her karaoke machine and storms out.
In previous episodes, Jodi had been regulated to Crazy Drunk Aunt, so seeing her lash out at Pat and Eileen is a refreshing change. She has emotions that aren't tied to being man-hungry or tipsy; Jodi is the ex-wife of Pat's brother who hasn't shown up yet. Hopefully the show will explain why Jodi stuck around after the divorce and why the brother hasn't. It would be interesting to learn about those dynamics. When will we find out more about Pat's family?
Meanwhile, Shannon is interviewing potential first-kissers, complete with credit score checks. (She's already four months behind schedule.) And instead of Kenny wearing the golden whistle of Faith Leader, Jimmy gets the honor. Vice Principal Murray thinks giving Jimmy some responsibility will curb his pranks, and he's right. Unfortunately, Kenny can't handle not being the leader. He plots with Jimmy's friends to throw a party in VP Murray's office, which smells like Funyuns and Axe body spray, but Jimmy shuts it down. The boys plan a new prank — Saran-wrapping Jimmy to a pole — but Kenny has a crisis of conscience.
In a cutaway vision sequence, Kenny talks to the good and bad side of his conscience: Jesus and an Angelina Jolie-inspired Maleficent. Jesus assumes Kenny would have left Maleficent behind, but Kenny assures him you can never outgrow an evil queen. Jesus reprimands Kenny: "Just because you didn't get the thing that you want, you don't have to be something you're not." Maleficent reminds Kenny that anger is a natural emotion and if you bottle up your emotions, you'll get cancer. Of course, Kenny chooses to warn Jimmy of the plan, then they figure out a way for both of them to get what they want. They pretend everything was one elaborate double-cross, and Jimmy winds up Saran-wrapping Kenny to a pole, much to his friends' delight. Kenny gets the Faith Leader whistle, but VP Murray confiscates it because the kids ate all of his Lunchables during their party.
Meanwhile, Shannon gets her kiss, and Pat and Eileen apologize to Jodi. They consider her family, not a friend — and family means taking advantage of each other all the time. After some future karaoke negotiations, all is well again.
Both Eileen and Kenny have trouble with their jealousy in this episode. They're remarkably similar. As we've seen before, Eileen has a hard time making friends and Kenny is looking for his place in the world. The parallels that The Real O'Neals draws between mother and son are sweet and thoughtful. Given their closeness, it's easy to see why Eileen's acceptance is so important to him, beyond the traditional bonds of a parent-child relationship. Eileen's attempts at friendship will ultimately help her learn how to be more than a mother and wife, in addition to giving her the tools she needs to repair and strengthen her relationship with Kenny. Seeing this kind of growth from Eileen is promising. It makes me hopeful for a second season, if we get that chance to watch the O'Neals grow as a family.