Tonight on ABC: Family DisFUNction on “The Real O’Neals”

The Real O'Neals Kellie Freeze
ABC's "The Real O'Neals" stars Bebe Wood as Shannon, Matt Shively as Jimmy, Noah Galvin as Kenny, Jay R. Ferguson as Pat and Martha Plimpton as Eileen. (ABC/Bob D'Amico)
The Real O'Neals
ABC’s “The Real O’Neals” stars Bebe Wood as Shannon, Matt Shively as Jimmy, Noah Galvin as Kenny, Jay R. Ferguson as Pat and Martha Plimpton as Eileen. (ABC/Bob D’Amico)

In The Real O’Neals, premiering Tuesday on ABC, Martha Plimpton heads a seemingly perfect Irish-Catholic family whose veneer cracks when — among other things — middle child Kenny (Noah Galvin) announces that he is gay, parents Eileen and Pat (Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson) consider divorce, eldest son Jimmy (Matthew Shively) admits to an eating disorder and daughter Shannon (Bebe Wood) reveals she is a small-time crook.

The Real O’Neals follows in ABC’s tradition of uproarious comedies that feature nontraditional, but extremely relatable, American families, whose outlandish misadventures make our own foibles seem quaint by comparison. The series also features hilarious fantasy sequences featuring Jesus, Jimmy Kimmel, Tim Gunn and a steamy shirtless model from a cologne ad.

The Real O'Neals
Martha Plimpton as Eileen
(ABC/Bob D’Amico)

Plimpton stars as Eileen O’Neal, who is horrified as her perfect-looking family falls from grace. “She’s very devoted to them and she’s very interested in appearances and making sure everyone is behaving well in the eyes of God and making a good impression at church,” Plimpton says. Eileen is conflicted not by who her flock reveals themselves to be, but by the realization that she’s out of touch.

“The thing about Eileen is not that she doesn’t love her children for who they are; it’s that she doesn’t know who they are,” explains Plimpton. “She feels like maybe she’s failed them or she wonders where she went wrong. These are sort of common experiences I think for parents anyway, regardless of their religious affiliations.”

Plimpton believes that the O’Neals, despite their personal problems, are still the family next door. “They’re not freaks — by any means,” she says. “They’re an entirely normal family.” And for Plimpton’s character, her challenge is to accept that having flaws is normal. The actress says, “I think a big part of Eileen’s conflict or struggle in the opening episodes of our show is the idea that her kids couldn’t come to her. That they didn’t feel comfortable talking to her.” And having teens that are unwilling to communicate seems completely normal for most families.

Plimpton also starred in the FOX comedy Raising Hope about another fabulous but flawed family, and was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Virginia Chance. Plimpton laughs when comparing the two wildly different characters. “They’re like polar opposites. Virginia didn’t care about what anybody thought of her. She was who she was and she was very comfortable with it. Virginia is a little bit more of the id. In many ways, she’s sort of a lot more like me,” she explains. “Eileen is more comfortable in her faith. She’s not as physical a person; she’s not as outrageously funny. Eileen’s a little more — I want to say — a little tougher.”

But instead of dishing out tough love, Eileen tries to accept her charming, messy and imperfect family. “I think that struggle and that coming to terms with that new reality provides ample fodder for comedy,” Plimpton says.

Plimpton admits it’s a delicate balancing act to play up her character’s horror at the discovery that her son is gay, and being a compassionate character who loves her son. She says, “The challenge for me is making sure that I express Eileen’s fears and her prejudices in a way that’s empathetic toward her, because she is an antagonist to a degree in the story — she’s certainly an antagonist to her son, Kenny — but she loves him. I tend to come at a character generally without trying to judge them that way.”

But instead of dishing out tough love, Eileen tries to accept her charming, messy and imperfect family. “I think that struggle and that coming to terms with that new reality provides ample fodder for comedy,” Plimpton says.

The Real O’Neals > ABC > Preview Wed, March 2 at 8:30 & 9:30pm ET/PT;
The Real O’Neals > ABC > Airs Tuesdays beginning March 8

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