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ABC, ‘The Real O’Neals’ strain to find the funny in family

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Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson in “The Real O’Neals.”
Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson in “The Real O’Neals.”ABC

The Real O'Neals 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., ABC

Back in the 1990s, NBC owned the single-in-the-city sitcom genre, with "Seinfeld" and "Friends" among the big hits. Now, ABC owns the family sitcom genre, having taken the success of "Modern Family" and added on "The Middle," "Fresh Off the Boat," "The Goldbergs," and "Black-ish."

On Wednesday night, "The Real O'Neals" joins the party. It's based in part on the life of Dan Savage, the advice columnist, author, journalist, and founder of the It Gets Better Project. The concept: A Catholic family, led by an assertive and super-religious mother played by Martha Plimpton, has to deal with the parents' talk of divorce, one son's eating disorder, another son's gayness, and the fact that the daughter steals. (In a full-page ad in The New York Times, the Catholic League denounced the show and Savage. To me, the scripts were respectful of religion, even as they affectionately teased Plimpton's hypocritical character.)

Hey, kudos to ABC for helping to broaden the idea of family. Good on them. It's easy to underestimate the value of seeing yourself reflected on the screen, especially if you're black, or Asian-American, or Jewish, or gay, or if you father is old enough to be your grandfather.


But I do wish these shows were better. Much better.

"The Real O'Neals" may improve, but the first episodes are cartoonish, unrealistic, and predictable. The characters each have precisely one quality. "Modern Family" is fading away, after a fantastic early run, and none of the other shows — except "Black-ish" — are ambitious or trying to cut deep. "Black-ish" admirably takes on racial issues, with a lot more layering than the headache-inducing "Fresh Off the Boat," but too often it sacrifices character and tone for big ideas.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.