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'The Real O'Neals' & 'The Family': It's all relatives on ABC

A sitcom about coming out and a thriller about coming back get special launches this week.

Bebe Wood, Matt Shively, Noah Galvin, Jay R. Ferguson, and Martha Plimpton are “The Real O’Neals.”
Bebe Wood, Matt Shively, Noah Galvin, Jay R. Ferguson, and Martha Plimpton are “The Real O’Neals.”Read moreCourtesy Image

All picture-perfect families are not alike.

A couple of them begin to fall apart this week on ABC, as two episodes of its newest comedy, The Real O'Neals, get wrapped around Wednesday's Modern Family before moving to Tuesdays next week. On Thursday, new drama The Family takes over Scandal's time slot for a night before moving to Sundays.

And while the O'Neals, a working-class family from Chicago, don't have much in common with The Family's Warrens of Red Pine, Maine, both are clans with secrets - television's favorite kind - and include teenage sons whose lives are mysteries to their parents.

The O'Neals' secrets, though, won't be secrets long, and spilling them may bring them closer.

The Real O'Neals stars Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) and Jay R. Ferguson (Mad Men) as Eileen and Pat O'Neal, who've been holding things together for the sake of their three kids and so Eileen, in particular, can maintain a facade in which she's particularly invested.

ABC's pickup of the show last year was greeted with protests from groups angry that it was to be loosely based on the life of author and gay activist Dan Savage. Like Savage's family, the O'Neals are Roman Catholic; Pat O'Neal is a Chicago cop; and they have a 16-year-old son, Kenny (Noah Galvin), who's gay.

That it started out with an idea from the 51-year-old Savage, who's also an executive producer, probably explains why the pilot feels in some ways dated, and Eileen's style of Catholicism like a relic from my own (very) long-ago Catholic girlhood.

What becomes clearer over the four episodes I've seen is that Eileen's approach to her religion says a lot more about Eileen than it does about 21st-century Catholicism. Every denomination has its control freaks.

Plimpton and Ferguson are good at not being good together, but the writing so far is uneven.

If not for Galvin, who's both touching and funny as a boy who knows he likes boys but hasn't a clue where to take it from there, The Real O'Neals might be just another not-quite-real sitcom family.

Reality's not always Job One for drama writers, either.

Jenna Bans, creator of The Family, told reporters recently that what she learned working for Shonda Rhimes on shows that included Grey's Anatomy and Scandal was "writing without fear, and without fear that you won't be able to think of what comes next."

The Family's job then is to move so quickly that we won't stop to question individual plot points. That's just what it does in its first two episodes.

Joan Allen stars as Claire Warren, a Maine politician whose young son Adam disappeared 10 years earlier, changing her life and the lives of her husband, John (Sherlock's Rupert Graves); daughter Willa (The Newsroom's Alison Pill); and son Danny (Friday Night Light's Zach Gilford).

Now Adam (The Killing's Liam James) is back. Or is he? And if he is, what does that mean for the neighbor (Andrew McCarthy) who's presumed to have abducted and killed him? And will Claire, a mayor who has her eye on the governor's mansion, be using Adam's return, as she did his disappearance, to boost her career?

So. Many. Questions.

Unfolding at the speed of a Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder, The Family's likely to reply to each and every one by raising at least five more.

While we're waiting to be further mystified, there's plenty to see, including McCarthy's scene-stealing performance as a character who might be as misunderstood as Boo Radley, or might truly be the bogeyman of our worst nightmares.