The Real O’Neals
It was only a matter of time until a racist, homophobic grandparent arrived to wreak havoc in the O’Neal household. Enter Grandma Agnes, played by Frances Conroy. Although Conroy brings her usual commanding presence to the role, Agnes isn’t all that compelling of a character. She spurs along plenty of character development, but it’s just not enough to liven up this dull episode.
As “The Real Grandma” opens, the O’Neals have established a working rhythm for their new lives. Pat and Eileen split meal-prep duty, and Eileen is inching closer to something like acceptance for Kenny’s sexual orientation. (She now refers to Kenny being gay as “the situation.”) As the family prepares to eat Pat’s basement-crockpot entrée, Grandma Agnes arrives — unannounced, of course. She makes her presence known by loudly refusing to tip her cab driver, claiming the fact that he’s allowed to stay in the country is tip enough. While she delivers her xenophobic rant, the family hurries to make the house look as Catholic as possible. According to Kenny, Grandma Agnes is the original Catholic gangster. And because she’s such a devout Catholic, Eileen hasn’t told her about the pending divorce or Kenny being gay.
Eileen is Grandma Agnes’s only child, and Agnes never lets her forget how disappointing she is. Agnes blames Eileen’s birth for her lack of a large Catholic family, and Eileen has been searching for her mother’s approval all of her life. Pat is the only thing about Eileen that Agnes likes, so Eileen isn’t prepared to tell her mother the truth. Kenny refuses to hide his sexuality anymore, however, and he encourages his mother to come out with her own truth about her marriage. After some back and forth, they agree to tell Grandma Agnes when dessert is finished. Eileen sends Kenny out to find a lemon-potato cake, an old-school Irish dessert that harks back to the time when the British kept all the real cake for themselves.
Too bad there’s no such thing as an Irish lemon-potato cake. If Eileen can keep Kenny out on his fool’s errand long enough, Grandma Agnes will have finished her traditional two-hour visit and be gone. Of course, Kenny figures out her ruse and rushes home. He arrives just as Grandma Agnes is about to leave, and found a special cake to boot. It’s a seven-layer rainbow cake with “I’M GAY” written in icing. Grandma Agnes faints at the news and has to spend the night.
Everything else that happens in “The Real Grandma” isn’t exactly predictable, but it’s not all that unexpected, either. It’s interesting to see Agnes dote on Pat, but since it’s largely based in the resentment of her own child, it’s not as disruptive as it could’ve been. Jimmy seems to be leaning into the dumb-jock thing, and Shannon is still as enterprising and money-hungry as ever. This time, we see how her passion may have started. For every small thing she does, like wearing certain clothes or coloring a coloring book, she gets money. In the first night of Grandma Agnes’s visit, she makes $124. Not bad, Shannon!
For some reason, Pat has grown a mustache as a sign of his basement independence. And because Agnes is spending the night, Pat and Eileen have to share a bed to continue the façade of a happy marriage. Kenny suggests Pat is Eileen’s beard, just like Mimi was his beard. And as with Mimi, Pat’s mustache is “going to get itchy and bitchy real quick.” Eileen doesn’t want to hear that kind of talk from Kenny, going so far as to use his full name (Kenneth Christopher Sebastian O’Neal) to chastise him. Eileen and Pat sleep with a body pillow between them to avoid any problems.
In the morning, Grandma Agnes claims she’s going to help Kenny fix his problem, as if being gay is something that should be corrected. She wants to send him to a gay-conversion camp called Prayer and Penance Camp. As much as Kenny would love to go away for a two-week vacation in the woods with a bunch of other gay boys, he knows the practice of conversion therapy is wrong. And so, Agnes digs in her heels and decides to stay as long as it takes until Kenny can be “saved.” Shannon’s probably the only one in the house who is happy to see her sticking around; it’ll certainly help her piggy bank.
Faced with the idea of faking her marriage and living with her mother’s constant disapproval, Eileen begins to stress-eat. Kenny finds her hiding in the guest bathroom with his coming-out cake. He tells his mom that she has to admit the truth, and Eileen gets a little snarky with him about all the times he’s had to come out because it’s never gone smoothly. Kenny describes how, ideally, he wanted to come out to her by cooking Eileen some of her favorite foods, then listing all of the celebrities she likes who are gay so she’d recognize that gay people aren’t bad. They decide that this is the technique to use on Grandma Agnes.
It’s good of The Real O’Neals to note that coming out can be a constant thing. Many people have to come out repeatedly — to family, to classmates, to friends. It’s not as if you can say it once and all the important people in your life suddenly know. It’s a challenging, anxiety-inducing process. You never know how people will react, so you have to be prepared for the worst. Like, say, a grandmother who wants to pray your gay away.
The family gets Agnes tipsy on sherry. She compliments the dinner Eileen prepares (corned beef and cabbage, of course) without a single cutdown and it makes Eileen so happy, she reneges on the plan to tell her mother the truth. When she brings out dessert, she tells Agnes that Kenny made it. Grandma Agnes calls it dry and refuses the sauce Kenny offers. She tells him he is broken and God doesn’t like broken things. It’s a vicious, hurtful thing to say, and Eileen tells her mother off for it. She will not allow Agnes to talk to her children that way, and in the heat of the moment, she admits that she and Pat are divorcing. Agnes begins to choke and nobody moves until Jimmy asks, “Is this what we’re doing? Letting God take out Grandma?” (Like last week’s camping story line, the moment is reminiscent of a scene from Frasier, when his terrible girlfriend began choking during a Pictionary game and no one offered to help.)
The next day, Eileen drops Agnes off at another family member’s home and tells her she is no longer welcome to visit until she learns to respect the entire family. The kids are duly impressed, and Eileen praises Kenny for his bravery in coming out. She notes how terrifying it is, and later, the two bond with cake. Kenny makes good on his promise to list the celebrities Eileen didn’t know were gay, including her favorite actor from The Good Wife, Alan Cumming, who’s also Scottish. It’s a cute little shout-out to Martha Plimpton’s role on that show, and it nearly excuses the rest of “The Real Grandma,” which is as dry as the bread-and-butter pudding that left Grandma Agnes choking.
Despite its flaws, the show remains admirably committed to drawing parallels between “straight people problems” and “gay people problems.” Revealing the truth about who you are or what’s going on in your life is never easy, and it’s rarely a one-time thing. This is a human problem, and no matter how you identify yourself, telling a difficult truth can have enduring consequences. That’s why, as The Real O’Neals demonstrates, it’s important to surround yourself with people who are supportive, respectful, and won’t judge when you stress-eat rainbow cake.