Emmy spotlight: Martha Plimpton delivers laughs and tears on ‘The Real O’Neals’

Snagging an Emmy nomination requires an actor to stand out, not just from the rest of the competitio  but from his or her own co-stars. If there is anyone who knows how to truly set herself apart, it’s the always captivating Martha Plimpton. On her new ABC sitcom “The Real O’Neals,” this past Emmy champ proves yet again to be one of the most reliable players on TV.

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“The Real O’Neals” centers on a traditional Irish Catholic family in Chicago. As devout matriarch Eileen, Plimpton maintains her family’s perfect image with an iron grip. She is characterized as having two favorite things in life: “serving the church, and having everyone see her do it.” However, that facade quickly crumbles when the family’s darkest secrets are revealed including the fact, most notably for Eileen, that middle son Kenny (outstanding newcomer Noah Galvin) is gay.

“The Real O’Neals” has a darker sensibility than the rest of ABC’s sunny lineup. That edgier tone allows “The Real O’Neals” to stand apart and that could be a valuable asset in an era where cable and premium networks have dominated the Emmys.

Perhaps it’s this clash of tones which has led to some critics having reservations about the show as awhole. However, even they have nothing but praise for Plimpton. Consider these kudos from some of the nation’s leading reviewers: 

Robert Bianco (USA Today): “We should all be able to agree: Stars Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson are the real thing. It helps that as far as we’ve seen, Plimpton can do no wrong — and if she can, it’s a deeper secret than anything O’Neals has to reveal. In big roles from ‘Parenthood’ to ‘Raising Hope,’ in guest shots from ‘Fringe’ to the ‘The Good Wife,’ she is a constantly changing yet ever steady source of pleasure.”

Robert Lloyd (L.A. Times): “And above all, there is Plimpton (of ‘Raising Hope,’ and so much more), the anchor here, as she seems to be wherever she goes. Her character’s life has proceeded from a youthful indiscretion: ‘On our second date your father and I went to a Foreigner concert, I smoked a joint and I ended up getting pregnant with Jimmy,’ and the woman holds out hope for her son’s eventual heterosexuality: ‘It’s like when you were little. You said you hated papaya, and once you tried it you couldn’t get enough’.”

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David Sims (The Atlantic): In her role as Eileen, Plimpton is excellent and helps keep the show together in its shaky early moments. She’s the toughest character, since pretty much everyone else in the family is a lovable dope of some sort. But Plimpton has excelled at playing hard-edged but sympathetic matriarchs for years, including in ‘Raising Hope,’ one of the most criminally underrated family sitcoms of the last 10 years. There, she was a working-class oddball; here, she’s an overbearing type-A monster. In both cases, it’s hard as a viewer not to root for her.”

Brian Lowry (Variety): “If the show works, and that’s a long shot, it will likely be because of Martha Plimpton, playing a mother who might not understand or accept everything about her kids, but who, at her core, genuinely loves them…it’s Plimpton who stands out most as the blue-collar mom — someone who has to rather abruptly pivot from worrying about her son engaging in premarital sex to, in her eyes, the state of his immortal soul.”

With such a positive critical consensus, Plimpton should be a strong contender in the Best Comedy Actress race; she contended here in 2011 for “Raising Hope” losing to Melissa McCarthy (“Mike and Miolly”). She did win Best Drama Guest Actress the following year for “The Good Wife,” having been nominated in that same category back in 2002 for an appearance on “Law and Order: SVU.”

As with Plimpton’s character of Virginia Chance on “Raising Hope”, Eileen O’Neal inspires a strong rooting factor in each episode. The revelations of her children hit this devoutly religious woman hard and she struggles to accept them. As an audience member you cheer her on as she grows to love her children for who they are. While the actress expertly displays her comic timing with the overbearing mother motif, she shows us a softer side as well and this combo could prove irresistible to Emmy voters. 

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Photo Credit: ABC

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