The show is loosely based on the coming of age of Seattle-based syndicated columnist Dan Savage. Conservative groups wanted the show killed, but it will debut March 2 before settling into its regular time slot on March 8.
PASADENA, Calif. — When TV networks introduce a series inspired by the life of a real person, it’s not unusual to see that person giving interviews to support the show.
However, at a panel at the recent Television Critics Association winter press tour for ABC’s new comedy “The Real O’Neals,” inspired loosely by the early life of Seattle’s syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage, Savage was not present.
The “Savage Love” columnist’s absence wasn’t entirely surprising given the conservative backlash to his involvement in the program. Even before it was picked up for a series last May, several conservative groups denounced the prospect of an ABC sitcom with any ties to Savage, whom they label an “anti-religious bigot.” (Several of the groups, including the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, have been labeled “extremist hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, for anti-gay bigotry.)
‘The Real O’Neals’
8:30 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2; regular time slot is 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays beginning Tuesday, March 8, on ABC.
“Disney/ABC glorify X-rated bully Dan Savage in prime-time sitcom,” squawked the headline at Breitbart.com.
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After the show was picked up and a trailer for “The Real O’Neals” was released, the outcry grew louder still. Conservative site TownHall.com called it “likely the most anti-Catholic thing you’ll see today” for a “parade of Catholic stereotypes.” Others were particularly incensed by promotion that described the O’Neals as “your typical Irish-Catholic family.”
This month, an ABC publicist declined to make Savage, editorial director of Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, available for an interview. Attempts to get Savage to answer questions through email and a representative were unsuccessful.
Savage is an executive producer on “O’Neals,” but his involvement is limited, it turns out. He was present during production of the pilot, but not much else.
“The Real O’Neals” is only loosely inspired by Savage’s coming of age. What the two have in common can be summed up in a sentence: It’s the story of an Irish-Catholic family in Chicago, whose police officer father divorces a devoutly religious mother as a teen son comes out as gay.
That’s where the similarities end. The gay son in “The Real O’Neals” is called Kenny — he’s played by Noah Galvin — and the setting is contemporary, not the early 1980s, when Savage was a teen.
Galvin was quick to note that the show is not entirely autobiographical.
“I’m not playing Dan Savage, so there was nothing I needed to learn from him to better play this role,” Galvin said, noting he is gay and could draw on his own life experience in playing Kenny.
But Galvin said he and co-star Martha Plimpton, who plays Kenny’s mom, Eileen, talked with Savage about the relationship between mother and son.
“He was informative in that sense, because my mother was one of the most liberal people ever and his mother was maybe the opposite of that,” Galvin said. “Kenny’s main struggle is not wanting to disappoint his mother and being his mother’s favorite and knowing that and not wanting to ruin the relationship that’s already existing, and that is true to Dan as well.”
Creators and executive producers David Windsor and Casey Johnson said executives with ABC Studios, which produces “The Real O’Neals” for the ABC network, came to them with the project.
“They had read some of Dan Savage’s books and had been meeting with him,” said Windsor, who grew up with two gay dads. “And they came to Casey and I and thought we’d be a really good fit for the show. And we took Dan’s life and sort of used it as a launching point and pulled in our own lives. Once we hired our writers, we pulled in their lives and, yeah, really just sort of started exploiting our own family miseries.”
Executive producer and director Todd Holland said Savage came to Los Angeles during production of the pilot and talked about his life to the writers’ room.
“He’s doing his own stuff, he has his own industry in Seattle,” Holland said, noting that Savage has not provided notes on scripts after the pilot. “We started out that way, but it became overwhelming. He didn’t understand the onslaught of focus that’s required. … He realized his attention was better in a global sense and focusing on his own stuff.”
Holland said it appeared to be a difficult transition for Savage to accept that “The Real O’Neals” was more in line with “It Gets Better” (Savage’s anti-gay-bullying video campaign) than “Savage Love.”
“We had to really convince him, ‘This is not your ‘Savage Love’ brand, this is the ultimate “It Gets Better” brand, this show is a day-to-day revelation of “It Gets Better,” ’ ” Holland said. “He’s worried about his much racier brand, a very sexually explicit brand that he enjoys and is very Dan. This is the other brand he created.”
Ultimately, Holland said, Savage was generally pleased with how the pilot of “Real O’Neals” turned out.
“He wrote a very sweet email during the pilot,” Holland recalled. “It was a very difficult process for him and he wrote, ‘I’m never happy. It’s very hard for me to be happy, but I do like this pilot.’ ”