The Real O’Neals – B+
It’s prom season in the O’Neal household and all three kids have their own private promposal hell. First off, is that a thing in some part of the country — every grade going to the same prom? I’m no expert on the subject growing up in the city and having avoided my own prom like the plague, so that part seemed a bit off and something of a cheat to drive the plot, but perhaps that’s my own ignorance. Of course, Kenny’s is the most provocative and he opens “The Real Prom” with a willful stride to fight for his rights, wins so easily — it is people-pleaser Vice Principal Murray after all — that he’s suddenly faced with the realization he has no date; in fact, with no fellow clearly out fellow student, it looks pretty bleak. In steps trope-us ex machina, and the count is doubled by a Swedish exchange student presented to Kenny eagerly by our favorite VP. However, in steps the usual complications as Stuart suddenly discovers his sexuality and steals Kenny’s thunder.
Meanwhile, Jimmy has his own parallel troubles as he tries not to stumble over his own tongue while asking the clearly adoring Lacey to the big dance. Devon swoops in just as Jimmy and Kenny are about to unleash their elaborate pinata-blimp to spill Swedish fish. However, the key takeaway here, and what makes this episode, and the show in general, so charming, is that Jimmy and Kenny are working together. As dysfunctional as the O’Neals are, they’re already, one short season in, well-developed as a truly loving unit. Jimmy covers for their disaster by escorting his brother to the prom. This is all before they both have to warmly embrace their mother’s strange love — Jimmy spies VP Murray and Eileen locking lips just as he leans in for his own already insanely awkward kiss with Lacey. Meanwhile, across town, Pat is comforting his dateless daughter Shannon, finds out she had a shot, then encourages her to don a dress and not miss out. Although, she’s in, what, 9th grade? They kind of oversell the potential “missed opportunity” here. And there’s a bit of a problem with the timeline when it’s revealed Pat is Class of 1994 and was nowhere near dating at the time — he’d have to have hustled to get a child who is now roughly 18 into the world, but that one could just be my own aging hang-ups. There’s still a few kinks, but they’re easily overlooked amid the sweetness and wit, and that’s a perfect season-ending sendoff to this year’s smartest sitcom debut.
– Jason Thurston
Fresh Off the Boat – B-
What an odd mix of low- an high-stakes it is that marks the Fresh Off the Boat second season finale. As Louis is faced with his estrangement from — and possible betrayal of — his brother Gene (played in an unusually understated take from Ken Jeong), Eddie is faced with trying to watch that summer’s Chris Rock HBO special so he can talk about it with his boo Alison goes away to band camp for two months. Counterintuitively, it’s the latter that bears fruit, probably because we can all relate with being young, in love, and connecting life-or-death consequences to the inessential. Cool, it, I’m not calling Rock’s groundbreaking comedy unimportant, but the time-frame is, and Hudson Yang’s Eddie plays his interactions with his friends, and the gamesmanship with his brothers who have been deputized by his mom to prevent his viewing, with the perfect level of building helpless desperation. Unfortunately, it has the unintended effect of making the A-story with Louis and Gene seem a bit trite and rushed as they pack it into half of the half-hour, so that when we reach the “Huangs are Going to China” moment, it lacks the proper punch. We end the season on the strangest, but oddly affecting, coda as Trent silently drops his ever-present Browns coat into the trash can and lights it on fire. “Soooo, Trent…what’s up?” It’s 1996, and that’s the summer Art Modell became Cleveland’s Public Enemy #1 by moving the Browns to Baltimore. At first glance, it seems a loose fit, but paired with Cleveland’s own Bone Thugs -N- Harmony’s biggest hit “Tha Crossroads,” it’s right in line with growing up’s inherent loss of innocence and the intrusion of the real world, and strikes the perfect note for the show to leave the viewers with for the summer, even if the episode as a whole was not one of its best.
– Jason Thurston