This week’s episode of ABC’s comedy The Real O’Neals — featuring gay athletes and intellectual cheerleaders — may seem like a lovely attempt at undermining stereotypes.
It’s so much more.
Centered around gay-teen character Kenny (Noah Galvin) being pressed into wrestling duty for the high school team, the episode takes what we’ve come to expect from people in sports and turns that on its ear.
To be sure, that approach is a hallmark of the entire series. Yet this week’s episode hits home particularly well, smacking down some of the most traditional pre-conceived notions of high school athletes and sports. And yes, it does it with a smile.
"You can't get away from stereotypes,” series producer David Windsor said. “But we find what's expected and take a new bent on it. People are more complex than just ‘jock' or ‘cheerleader’ or ‘academic’ and we like to get into all of that and let it surprise the audience and the characters in the show. It's a little more interesting and layered. it feels more satisfying to us."
While Kenny is week-to-week stereotypically uber-gay — he calls Halloween “the gay Super Bowl” — this week his older brother convinces Kenny to join the wrestling team for one meet (and in series fashion, said convincing involves quoting of a scene from West Side Story).
The episode also features a second storyline bringing us into the intimate world of the “Mat Mates” -- the school’s wrestling-team cheerleaders. While Kenny’s sister Shannon (Bebe Wood) decides to expose them for their stereotypically vapid cheerleaderness, she’s shocked to learn they don’t talk just about boys and clothes behind closed doors. These girls can talk headlines from NPR like the Academic Decathletes!
Joining the cast this week are a couple gay athletes who themselves have shown what you can do when you believe in yourself and don’t let other people’s expectations get the best of you.
Professional soccer player Robbie Rogers and Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy both came out publicly at the height of their careers. While conventional wisdom paves the path of gay pro athletes with pitfalls, both of them have succeeded profoundly since their public revelations.
The two athletes appear in a vision Kenny has as he’s “backstage” prepping for his wrestling debut. Resigned to take a flop for the team — all the team needs is for him to not forfeit the match — he has second thoughts about even stepping foot on the mat.
Kenworthy and Rogers serve as role models for Kenny, appearing moments before the big match to offer him some words of inspiration. Doubting himself, Kenny gets that much-needed pep talk from the two athletes, giving him the belief that he too can be a successful gay athlete.
The power and importance of that role modeling — and what it reflects in the broader culture — wasn’t lost on Kenworthy.
"I think that's part of the reason I was in the closet for so long,” he said. “It’s part of the reason I had such trouble coming to terms with my sexuality, because it was so foreign to me. I didn't know anyone in the sports world who talked about it or was transparent.”
Of course, young Kenny has no trouble figuring out he’s gay as he came out on the series’ first episode. Yet the gentle encouragement of these two gay athletes is enough to spur him to a — shall we say “unconventional” — trip to the mat.
For Windsor and director Todd Holland, the casting of Rogers and Kenworthy was perfect. They had reached out to a couple other athletes, but they were anywhere from their late 30s to their 60s. For the producers, the casting of two younger athletes fit the reality of role modeling better, given Kenny’s teenage years.
The heart of the episode comes when Kenny approaches his opponent for his second match, and the teenage wrestler from the opposing team shows some pretty brutal homophobia.
"The casting of that other wrestler was so crucial to me,” Holland said. “If he was a transparent villain — some big stereotypical meathead — it would have far less power to injure. The actor we cast could have been anybody. He could just have easily been another gay kid. But it was so normal for that character to have that bias. You like that kid enough that when he steps on the mat to be really hurt by his rejection."
The reaction by Kenny’s big brother and the rest of his team will leave you with a smile. It even left me with a little tear.
For Rogers and Kenworthy, this was their big national TV acting debut. Rogers told me that acting isn’t exactly his first (or 50th) love; Kenworthy, on the other hand, may be pursuing it as a career post-retirement.
While neither of the athletes received acting coaching before the shoot, Rogers did get some wisdom from his boyfriend, successful TV producer Greg Berlanti.
“He told me to practice my lines out loud in different ways, which was very helpful. He also was a big advocate and really wanted me to do it even when I was hesitant.”
Berlanti knows what he was talking about, and I’m glad Rogers listened.
You can catch ‘The Real Match’ on ABC’s The Real O’Neals, Dec. 6, 9:30/8:30.