Noah Galvin as Kenny O'Neal in THE REAL O'NEALS | © 2016 ABC/Nicole Wilder

Noah Galvin as Kenny O'Neal in THE REAL O'NEALS | © 2016 ABC/Nicole Wilder

In ABC Network’s new half-hour comedy THE REAL O’NEALS, fourteen-year-old Kenny (Noah Galvin) comes out as gay to his very religious mother Eileen (Martha Plimpton) and police officer father Pat (Jay R. Ferguson). To his shock, Kenny learns his parents are separating, older brother Jimmy (Matt Shively) is obsessed with losing weight for his wrestling team and sister Shannon (Bebe Wood) steals things. No wonder Kenny sees Jesus – he is in need of more-than-human help.

THE REAL O’NEALS, which premieres its first two episodes Wednesday March 2 before moving into its regular Tuesday-night slot next week, was adapted for television by Casey Johnson and David Windsor from the autobiographical writings of Dan Savage.

Todd Holland (WONDERFALLS, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, SONS OF TUCSON) is one of the series’ executive producers and directed the pilot. He talks with Assignment X about why THE REAL O’NEALS feels personal to him, and more.

AX: Was THE REAL O’NEALS brought to you as a pitch or as a script?

TODD HOLLAND: This was brought to me as a full script. My development deal was with ABC Studios, my [original projects] did not happen that year, so I was reading the pilots ABC was making. I read four scripts in one afternoon. They were all family scripts, and I was reading this one, and I was, “Oh, cute voiceover, crazy family, blah, blah, blah,” and I looked ahead, and I got to this scene and, “Wait, wait, wait, what is this?” [laughs] I went, “What is happening here?” And I read more. “Oh, my God, this voiceover hero guide through this world is a gay kid, trying to come out of the closet.” And I was like, “What? This is amazing.” Because if you’re gay, the person is always your sidekick, or your funny color commentary. To have that be the voiceover, your way into the world, basically, you’re Fred Savage [as] Kevin Arnold in WONDER YEARS, to have that be a teenage gay kid trying to come out of the closet was just completely unheard-of to me, and I said, “I have to do this one.”

AX: Were the dysfunctions of the rest of the family in the script as well?

HOLLAND: That was all part of the seed of Dan Savage’s world, his messed-up family and how coming out ultimately made them all reveal their stuff, and his parents divorced, and his cop dad, and there’s so much of this that’s ripped from the headlines of his life just as concepts. All of that was in the idea. It was always intended that they would become better by accepting how messed up they were and being honest.

AX: Is Dan Savage involved with the show, or is he sort of like, “Go with God”?

HOLLAND: It’s a bit of “Go with God” now in the series. He was very involved in the pilot and learning how network television goes, and I think, I’ll be honest, he had some brand anxiety. His Savage Love brand is way more edgy and provocative than ABC Network television can ever be, and we had a conversation with him that, “This is not your Savage Love brand, this is your It Gets Better brand. And it fits you in a different way, but this is your brand.” Dan is a provocateur, and I think our show is provocative, but in the syntax of network television, which is different than really stirring it up in the real world. So Dan, in the making of the series, also realized that he has an industry in Seattle, he has a big business there, and he has a radio series, he’s writing, he’s pitching his own shows, and so he realized just [from] the number of documents that come through every day and need a response in thirty minutes that he needed to take a more 30,000-feet view of this process.

AX: Jimmy Kimmel shows up in your second episode as part of one of Kenny’s fantasies. Are you going to have a guest star of the week?

HOLLAND: The real fun of the series is, it started with the guy in the mirror in the pilot, and just acknowledging that Kenny has a very vivid imagination, and we can learn about him and his thought process through his imagination and these fantasies. He has a fantasy in every episode. Sometimes it involves celebrity guests, one is a musical number. It’s a variety of things. It’s not a celebrity every week.

AX: Is Kenny the only character who literally sees Jesus?

HOLLAND: Yes. There’s a really sweet relationship between him and Jesus in the series. They really know each other, in this really great way. It sounds dumb, but this is what it’s supposed to be like. There’s a real loving connection between them and they know each other and it’s comfortable, and Jesus shows up when Kenny’s in a moral dilemma, and helps him sort through it, basically. It sounds cloying, but it’s really lovely and funny and it’s always just enough, never too much.

AX: So when people talk about a personal relationship with God, this is what they mean?

HOLLAND: Well, this is that [laughs]. Jeremy Lawson is adorable as Jesus. I really fought for him particularly, because I thought, this is my personal Jesus. He looks just like the pictures that we see on the wall in Sunday school.

AX: Noah Galvin had said that for him, as a young gay man in real life, he had a much more immediately accepting reaction from his family, although the kind of upset reaction in THE REAL O’NEALS still seems to be happening in a lot of places …

HOLLAND: Well, he’s from Manhattan, too. He’s an urban kid, with an arts live-in urban mother, who basically said to him when he was fourteen, “When are you coming out?” She was trying to acknowledge what was very apparent. So he was welcomed into worlds without incident at a very young age, and so the idea of someone anguishing over this – that’s not his experience, but certainly, I’m sorry to say it is still a globally experienced phenomenon, that people are closeted and people need to come out. I always say I had to come out, because as much as I am not a “manly man,” in a sense, I was just weird. So people just checked off that box to Todd as “Todd is weird,” not “Todd is gay” [laughs]. So I had to tell people I was gay.

Noah’s so strong as an individual that we really had to remind him that in Episode Two, “You came out yesterday. We’ve got to meter how brazenly confident you are, and how much you push back at your mother.” [In real life], he’s older than his character. It’s a delicate balance with [Eileen] as an authority figure to make sure that he doesn’t push back at a level that she wouldn’t tolerate. So it’s finding that balance to him and letting him slowly find his feet and his confidence as a gay man, in the family of the series, I think is something we were able to do together, and that was really important to me.

AX: Does Eileen make progress with accepting Kenny, or does she hit the reset button?

The cast of THE REAL O'NEALS | © 2016 ABC/Bob D'Amico

The cast of THE REAL O'NEALS | © 2016 ABC/Bob D'Amico

HOLLAND: She’s making slow progress. I always say, you can drag this out a long time. My mother, it took until my kids were born [Holland and his husband have triplets] for her to completely make that transformation. So there’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back, that kind of thing. And there’s some pushing of the reset button, a little bit, but I think she’s slowly making progress. She has trouble.

I think people might perceive that she goes too far, too fast. She has moments in episodes where she finds what’s true about her life, despite what she’d like it to be, and then she gets worried and goes back to her comfort zone. My family taught me, never underestimate the power of denial.

AX: Martha Plimpton played a crazy mother on RAISING HOPE. Even though that character and Eileen O’Neal are very different types of crazy, intense matriarchs, did you cast her thinking, “Well, we know she can bring the crazy”?

HOLLAND: Well, we really admire her as an actor and how she grounds extreme behavior to emotional tenor, and that was so important. Virginia Chance on RAISING HOPE was such an earthy, centered in her body kind of character, and Eileen O’Neal is so in her head, in her perception and in her judgment of others, we thought that would be a nice shift for Martha, knowing that she knows how to ground extreme behavior and always keep it relatable, because you’ve got to root for this woman. We really cast this powerful actress to represent America in this, and the difficulty of this information about your family for America, and really make sure we had someone there representing the character in a really believable, grounded way.

AX: You have fifteen-year-old Bebe Wood in your cast, who was recently in another gay-themed half-hour comedy, THE NEW NORMAL …

HOLLAND: I said to her, “Isn’t it funny – you’re the girl from Kansas City who’s done two gay network shows?” And she said, “All my friends in Kansas City are gay. We live in a gentrifying Victorian neighborhood, and lots of gay couples moving in to renovate homes.” But she was new to all of us, and I have to say, on one level, Shannon is the most satisfying surprise as a character to me. I love this. She’s evolved in the series into a super-bright, super-quirky, really centered and self-confident girl. And I just think that’s a great role model.

AX: In the pilot, the older son Jimmy, played by Matt Shively, believes he has anorexia, but he seems to be recovering in the second episode. Is the anorexia going to come back, or …?

HOLLAND: I was aware that was going to be an element in the pilot, and we were concerned about that it really evolved into more [being about that] he got addicted to drop the [weight] for his wrestling, because we really felt like, we didn’t want to mock that condition in any way. It’s a very serious illness, we didn’t want to go down a path with that and not be able to service the real seriousness of that in an honest comedic way, and I think we felt we had a lot of masters to serve, and felt it might be simpler for his issues to have not been as clearly anorexic as he wants to believe, that he has more an obsession with weight loss because of wrestling. So it’s less of an issue the series.

AX: Does Jimmy get a different issue?

HOLLAND: No, he sort of evolves into his own thing. Matt is so funny and he’s warm and he’s genuine. Matt [plays] dumb so well, and he’s just got a big heart and just dives into whatever he commits to, and he has no judgment, and he’s just there for his family and he’s hilarious. I told him on set one day, “Matt, I keep watching you, and there’s something about your energy that’s so familiar. It took me a couple weeks to figure it out, and I think you remind me of Bryan Cranston.” Bryan would just come every day onto MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE [on which Holland was a director and producer], every day, with this amazing invention, and complete focus and complete inventiveness, and Matt does that every moment. As a director, you never worry about him.

AX: In terms of the material, is this the most personal thing you’ve been involved with?

HOLLAND: I read the script and for a while, it was called THE UNTITLED DAN SAVAGE PILOT, and then I read it and it had a whole different kind of terrible title called FAMILY OF THE YEAR. I read the script, and I went into it going, “This is my family.” I didn’t come out as a teen, I waited until thirty, but this is my family. My mother is very religious, my father’s a doctor, but just as distracted as [Pat], and eccentric, quirky siblings, including a gay brother and it’s all the craziness that happens. My straight brother dated a girl who was a kleptomaniac and ended up stealing an Oriental rug runner out of my parents’ home [laughs]. All of that crazy s*** that happens in your family. I told David and Casey, “This is my life. I totally get this.” And fortunately, that won them over.

AX: Do you think there’s a show yet to be made that is more for young gay men that are coming out now in the big cities, or do you think those shows are being handled on HBO and Showtime?

HOLLAND: It’s really threading the needle of Broadcast Standards. [On ABC], we are held to much more stringent standards, because we are considered a free channel and it is a free channel, anyone can receive the signal. We fight over every bleep that we put in there, we fight for every edgy thing that’s said. To get it on the air, to make it compete with cable, so I think there certainly is a show – I hope there’s a show – put it this way – I don’t want that show to just be on Logo. I hope there’s a show like O’NEALS that is for a younger audience that has very little issue with it, not as far as QUEER AS FOLK, but something that shows what it’s like to be gay in America right now, in a much more urban context.

I get uncomfortable when the media promotes the sort of archetypal gay thing. It’s like drag –drag was safe for centuries for straight audiences, because they could laugh at it. I just want the gay characters to just be [fully rounded people]. The gay community is so diverse, it is black, it is Muslim, it is Christian, it is white, it’s Asian, it’s Latin, it’s everything. There is no one image. And that’s the trouble. We are working with only one series, and there will definitely be another show that will show another very different experience, and they are all valid, because there is no one gay experience.

AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?

HOLLAND: I am full-bore in pilot prep on an American adaptation of the Australian format UPPER MIDDLE BOGAN, which is known on Hulu International as BESS OF BOTH WORLDS. It’s about a surgeon, and her husband and her three kids. She’s very neurotic and she discovers, when her mother collapses from diabetes and they go to the hospital, that her mother’s blood type does not match hers, and that it’s impossible that her mother is her mother, and that her mother has kept the secret her whole life – she’s adopted. And she’s got this patrician, Frasier-ish mother who is sort of affluent, I say sort of a Montana Boulevard in Santa Monica, a tasteful home, and she realizes her bio-parents gave her up at sixteen, and they are now a family of drag racers in Bagley, Montana. And it’s this whole clash of worlds, red state/blue state thing, and it’s a really funny, emotional series about trying to find out where you belong, and this neurotic female doctor. She says, “That’s why I’ve been this way, because I didn’t know who I was.” And so she tries to build connections with people who are very different from her, and they’re desperately happy to find her after all this time. So it’s this crazy collision of trying to belong and of course, the patrician grandmother doesn’t have any interest in it. The Australian series is very funny and always has a great deal of heart, and it’s written by Dan O’Shannon of MODERN FAMILY. And I’m directing and producing it with Dan, and the two Australian writers [Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope]. UNTITLED BUTLER, HOPE, O’SHANNON is the unglamorous title.

AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about THE REAL O’NEALS?

HOLLAND: I’ve been away from it, and now I’m stepping into another entire world, and I find myself missing THE REAL O’NEALS. I love that family, I love the struggle they’re in, as crazy as it sounds. It’s in the pilot, when they’re in the parking lot of the church, it’s all gone wrong, and Eileen says, “Pat, we’ve got to put that canoe back in that garage, because it represents all our hopes and dreams, and it’s going back in that garage.” And as a family, they make that effort. And to me, I was, “That’s like DOWNTON ABBEY, as crazy as that sounds” [laughs]. This family is faced with rapid social and societal change, and they’re trying to put the canoe back in the garage, and you just can’t do that. I feel it in this election, when everybody’s talking about, there’s an angry voter population, and there’s too much change, and everybody’s dizzy from change. And what I like about the O’Neals, what I miss about the O’Neals, just hanging out with the O’Neals is, they are together in that struggle. They never lose empathy for one another. And that makes them a powerful unit to confront change, and to eventually adapt, and to find a way forward. And I really admire that. Never losing empathy for one another, despite your differences, is something our entire nation needs to learn.

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ArticleTHE REAL O’NEALS: exclusive interview with Todd Holland 

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