Category Archives: Film

“TOP HAT AND TAILS: HAROLD ROSS AND THE MAKING OF ‘THE NEW YORKER’”— The Birth of “The New Yorker”

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“Top Hat and Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of the New Yorker”

The Birth of “The New Yorker”

Amos Lassen

One of my favorite stories that a friend once told me was about the time he was in a coffee shop in Manhattan having a cup of coffee and reading the latest “New Yorker”. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a tall beautifully clad woman enter and he prepared to go and left his copy of the magazine on the table. She called to him to tell him that he had forgotten his magazine and that her mother had taught her never to leave the house without “The New Yorker”. The woman was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. While I do often leave the house without “The New Yorker”, I never do if I am going to a coffee shop. This little story emphasizes the importance the magazine held among readers. This charming little film is as charming as the magazine it is about.

“The New Yorker” was born during a glamorous era in America and we see that here. The 20s and 30s were the times of jazz, speakeasies and the beginning of skyscrapers. People dressed for dinner and the theater and the beautiful people were really beautiful. The film faithfully reflects that period.

The magazine began as a metropolitan weekly and became an American icon that reflected the taste of its readers. Harold Ross was a true visionary and he made this magazine what it has become. Stanley Gucci’s narration is insightful and filled with wonderful information about the magazine that was and is composed of “engaging fiction, satirical cartoons, challenging articles” and it remains a mark of editorial and literate excellence. The film chronicles the years that Harold Ross was its editor—1925-1951. It includes interviews with current Editor-in-Chief David Remnick, former Cartoon Editor Lee Lorenz, and Senior Editor Roger Angell that tell us how The New Yorker’s signature style and content were shaped by its early contributors which included E.B White, James Thurber, J.D. Salinger, and more. Film clips, home movies, and images from the anthology of The New Yorker covers and cartoons illustrate this look at one of journalism’s most revered publication. Writers and artists including John Updike, Charles Schulz, Stuart Hemple and Roy Blount Jr. offer insight into “The New Yorker’s role in American cultural history.

 

“KIDS’ RIGHTS: THE BUSINESS OF ADOPTION”— “Every Child Deserves A Good Parent”

kids rights

“KIDS’ RIGHTS: THE BUSINESS OF ADOPTION”

“Every Child Deserves A Good Parent”

Amos Lassen

Filmmakers Michael Dudko and Olga Rudnieva happened to be on hand to witness the failed adoption attempt of Sir Elton John and his partner David Furnish. They tried adopting an HIV-positive boy named Lev from an orphanage in the Ukraine but under Ukrainian law, gay people are not permitted to adopt. They were turned down by government officials but the experience inspired Rudnieva and Dudko to make a documentary film that explored the complicated process of adoption and this film is the result.  The filmmakers are both Ukranian nationals. They began investigating the situation by researching the exact parameters of adoption in New York, the place where they lived. What they discovered was that thirty hours of parenting courses and a vigorous home study assessment were required and quite naturally they wondered if they were indeed competent enough to become parents under this. The next question that they considered was “if most people are required to just have sex in order to have a child, is that in the child’s best interest?”

From this they began to research the adoptive process, both domestic and international, through private agencies and the child welfare and foster care systems–which included going undercover into an adoption agency to discover the cost to adopt a white baby was significantly more than to adopt a child of color.  What this shows is that the private adoption process is fueled by profits and the state-supported child welfare systems (in the US and abroad) and they are “beleaguered and not necessarily governed by what might be best for the child”. With only one in 523 kids worldwide successfully adopted, the filmmakers were surprised to learn that in the UK it is illegal for interracial adoption (either an interracial couple or to adopt a child of differing ethnicity) and how child trafficking prevention laws have inadvertently stymied international adoptions.

To make the film, they went to Eastern Europe, China, Nepal, the UK and US and interviewed Elton John and David Furnish, who have since had two sons via surrogacy; David Pelzer, who was raised by an abusive mother before entering foster care and is best known for his best-selling 1995 memoir about child abuse, A Child Called ‘It’; the UK’s Francesca Polini, who adopted a Mexican baby but struggled with the UK’s adoption laws thus founding the organization, “Adopt a Better Way”; a lawyer, Mary Beth-Feindt,  who specializes Law Guardian and child advocacy; and Paul R. Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University, who is best known for the book “The Population Bomb”. 

 We learn that adopting a child means undergoing rigorous assessment marked by bureaucracy, paperwork and, often, an outlay of cash. 

What the filmmakers learned is both heartbreaking and frustrating as they experience what many adoptive and would be adoptive parents have found – a system that works against the interests of the children.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHrrkkdDw2o 

“JAMES THURBER: THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES”— Thurber’s Career

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“James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times”

Thurber’s Career

Amos Lassen

All us who have had American literature classes know who James Thurber is but some of us may not be aware of his long association with “The New Yorker Magazine” and his relationship to editor Harold Ross. Thurber wrote such wonderful short stories as “The Catbird Seat” and The Night the Bed Fell” and is probably best known for the classic “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and his cartoons that appeared regularly in “The New Yorker”. Thurber and his close friend E.B. White set the tone for “The New Yorker” during the 1930s and ’40s. Thurber lived from 1894-1961. “The Night the Bed Fell.” He is best known for the classic “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Thurber and his close friend E.B. White helped set the tone for “The New Yorker” during the 1930s and ’40s. This is the first major documentary about him.  In it, his career is illuminated with sections about his work and comments by John Updike and Fran Lebowitz among others.  He considered himself “nothing but a God-damned humorist” and we certainly see that here. Many consider Thurber to be only second to Mark Twain as a wit and it is through from his fans that we hear reflections of him and how his short stories and cartoons helped give “The New Yorker” its reputation for sophisticated humor and classy writing over the 30 years of their connection.” The film is narrated by George Plimpton and has interviews with Edward Albee, Alistair Cooke, Roy Blount Jr. and others.

“DAD ON THE RUN”— Fore(skin) and After

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“Dad on the Run” (“Cour Toujours”)

Fore(skin) and After

Amos Lassen

The Jewish religion has some very strange practices and I saw that as a practicing Jew—to others religions we may seem very, very odd. While circumcision is not so strange, some of what goes along with it might appear to be really weird. Jonas, a new father and a musician adheres to the tenets of his faith by having his new son “cut” but then it is his responsibility to bury the foreskin and so he wraps it up and thus begins his adventure through the streets of Paris. He must hurry because it must be taken care of before midnight. Much of what he goes through is not written in the Torah or anywhere else dealing with Judaism.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to build a movie on one gag, especially one that deals with the “source of life”. Granted the penis is to be venerated but this is a schlocky comedy that comes across as silly and it is silly just for the sake of being silly (it seems to me).

The plot is concerned with a 23-year-old Jewish father who must bury his newborn son’s foreskin within three days, which we are led to believe is an idea that is grounded in Jewish law. He faces all kinds of problems as he tries to do this and for almost an hour and a half we are taken on a run through Paris that is totally predictable. Then there’s a silly subplot involving a man who feels he’s been insulted so he sends three of his henchmen out to seek satisfaction. They, of course, do the Keystone Kops routine.

Dante Desarthe directed this comedy that is not really totally terrible and it does have the lovely French actress Emmanuelle Devos, in it. Clement Sibony and Rona Hartner try very hard to liven things up things.

There is also lots of reflected irony about the Jewish religion and its people and this is respectfully handled the gangster-chase-subplot is unnecessary. 

“NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE”— Stylish and Dark

nosferatu“Nosferatu The Vampyre”

Stylish and Dark

Amos Lassen

I remember all too well sitting in a dark Tel Aviv movie house on a summer afternoon and watching Klaus Kinski as the ugliest vampire I had ever seen. The film was “Nosferatu the Vampyre”, director Werner Herzog’s tribute to F. W. Murnau, whom he considers to be Germany’s greatest filmmaker, as well as a haunting gothic horror tale in its own right. It is a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film “Nosferatu”, which is the earliest surviving cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula”. Herzog has combined ideas from Murnau’s film, Bram Stoker’s novel, and his own imagination in creating a film that is, if anything, even more expressionistic and romanticist than the 1922 masterpiece. It is also more languid and pathetic than other “Dracula” adaptations.

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Set in Germany and Transylvania Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is a real estate agent employed by a madman named Renfield (Roland Topor) to deliver a contract to Count Dracula in Transylvania, who wishes to purchase property in Wismar, Germany. When he reaches his destination, Jonathan finds a hideous, predatory Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) eager to sign the deed to his new home. Several days later, ill and traumatized by horrors that he experienced at Dracula’s castle, Jonathan understands that his young wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) will be in grave danger if Dracula reaches Wismar and sets out to save her. Count Dracula’s arrival in Wismar coincides with the Plague. The city is overrun with rats and its population decimated by disease. Only Lucy comprehends the nature of the evil that has befallen the city and understands what she must do to stop it.

nosferatu2 Herzog’s film moves slowly but steadily and spends time with the characters. Count Dracula closely is grotesque— rodent-like and closely associated with rats and the Plague. He laments his permanent un-dead existence without light or love for centuries, which makes him a tragic character. Although Count Dracula is the force that drives the narrative, the first half of the film is about Jonathan, and the second half concentrates on Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). Lucy is stronger and smarter than the characters that surround her, and she tries her best to save everyone in spite of their blindness.

 The film is beautifully shot with glorious music and a wonderful performance by Klaus Kinski Dracula. This isn’t an ordinary vampire movie, it doesn’t have any scares, it doesn’t have any bloody scenes either, it’s not made to scare or gross the audience, it’s made to give the audience remarkable visions of vampires, so masterfully done that they are impossible to forget.

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Watching “Nosferatu” is like having a disturbing dream— the images have an hallucinogenic, archetypal quality. Writer-director Werner Herzog began with F.W. Murnau’s expressionist classic, mixed in elements from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, then set about creating a meditation on the vampire myth.  We begin to wonder what would it really mean to live forever, and be compelled to feed on the blood of others? What of the unspeakable boredom? The longing for companionship? For normalcy? For death? As played by Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s Dracula has spent hundreds, if not thousands of years alone with these thoughts. Herzog, Kinski, and the rest of the cast keep it all beautifully stylized and all works.

“STAGE FRIGHT”— A Horror Musical

stage fright

“Stage Fright”

A Horror Musical

Amos Lassen

Musical theater and slasher cinema come together in “Stage Fright”. Writer/director Jerome Sable finds a splendid middle ground of camp and suspense, filling the picture with memorable songs and a traditional display of bloodshed. It is something of an understatement to say that this is a bizarre movie but it is also fun and well done as it finds ways to integrate two unlikely styles in one film. So what if it is strange and totally imaginative—so is life.

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The story goes like this: Ten years ago, young Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith) witnessed the murder of their mother, beloved opera star Kylie (Minnie Driver). Raised by Kylie’s producer, Roger (Meat Loaf Aday), the siblings are currently employed at the Center Stage performing arts camp, where they manage kitchen duties while kids from around the country come to camp to work on their singing and dancing. A kabuki take on “The Haunting of the Opera” is the camp’s musical project and it is the very same piece that Kylie was involved with before her death. Roger hopes to interest a Broadway producer with it. Camilla, looking to connect with her mother, auditions for the lead role, competing with Liz (Melanie Leishman) and lascivious director Artie (Brandon Uranowitz) with hopes to secure the part. As set construction and rehearsals begin, Camilla struggles with her fears and the camp is soon terrorized by a masked killer who’s out to make sure the big show ends with a murder spree.

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 The film maintains a reverence for the Broadway aesthetic and director Sable is clearly loves musical theater. Not only does the picture share a handful of songs to help the storytelling out, it delves into the behind-the-scenes egos and pressures of performance, with Camilla not only facing the challenge of a leading part, but one her mother performed a decade ago. This is a marketable angle that Roger can’t resist as he works to bring moneymen to the camp. Songs do play a key role in “Stage Fright,” with most taking on a heightened form of comedy, playing up the bursting excitement of campers as they arrive on the property, and there are selections from “The Haunting of the Opera” to fill up the film’s final act. The tunes are silly but cute and have fun with musical conventions while at the same time giving some energy to the feature. Perhaps the best songs on the soundtrack are those sung by the killer, who takes on a death metal persona as he screams lyrics and slashes through victims with ease. “Stage Fright” sits somewhere between rides that line between camp and “let’s-put-on-a-show” and it always keeps a great spirit.

The final act of “Stage Fright” carries into expected mayhem as opera collides with the killer’s modus operandi and ends with dead bodies and opening night panic as Camilla fights to survive. Mystery isn’t a top priority for Sable’s screenplay, with the killer’s identity fairly easy to spot early on in the movie.

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While it is not laugh-out-loud funny but is consistently lighthearted which makes it fun to watch. “Stage Fright” masquerades as genre spoof. 

“WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD”— Araki’s Back

white bird

“White Bird in a Blizzard”

Araki’s Back

Amos Lassen

In 1988, a teenage girl’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears. With this we welcome Gregg Araki back to tell us another story about suburban sexuality. Shailene Woodley is Katherine, a high schooler boldly making choices about her virginity. At the same time, she and her father, (an excellent [and “best butt on television”] Christopher Meloni) deal with the sudden disappearance of the mother (Eva Green). Araki has never shied away from risky content in his film and in fact, he embraces it. Here, in this new film, he never allows the difficult subject matter to be a distraction. Araki’s world, especially here, is just a little more stylized in its look, feel, color, and level of dramatic content. It’s more real and direr, closer to the world we live in.

Kat Connor has recently blossomed from the woes of “teendom” and she is now no longer an adolescent but a beautiful sexual being. However, she is a social misfit who is more interested in sexual exploration than finding an intellectual equal, so her attention is immediately directed towards a hunky-yet-dumb boy next door, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). Her mother Eve is jealous of her daughter’s beautiful body. Now Eve has been replaced in the family by someone who is prettier than she is. She even feels she has to compete for her husband’s attention. Her marriage has been one that is sexless and her husband is not adventurous to say the least. Eve has changed from a sexy trophy wife into a deranged alcoholic. So, when she disappears, it seems all too probable that she ran away from her depressingly mundane life in suburbia for something a bit more exciting.

Set in 1988, the world we see is one of bad taste as exemplified by Kat’s bedroom furnishings. What Araki does is to take apart and look inside at the mind of the suburban American teen through coming-of-age experiments. When the film opens, Kat comes home from school to find her mother having a nervous breakdown on her bed. A few days later her mother is gone entirely, vanished without a trace. In her dreams, Kat sees Eve lying naked beneath a pile of fresh-fallen snow. The disappearance does not affect her at all and in fact she is unfazed by it. The police send her to a therapist (Angela Bassett), whose helps Kat uncover clues within recent examples of her mother’s increasingly erratic behavior.  Kat’s best friends are also social misfits and Kat has decided to lose her virginity to the oaf who lives next door to her, Phil,  (Shiloh Fernandez). Kat could do much better, but hasn’t quite realized the extent of her newfound powers — which explains her bewilderment as she studies her own unfamiliar body before the bathroom mirror.

Araki pays careful attention to detail throughout the film including period-specific T-shirts and song selections for the “normal-acting” teen characters which are in total contrast to Eve’s campy performance style and oddly out-of-time costumes and through this we get an idea about the psychological underlying of the film. When the time comes to assert her own independence, Kat must symbolically eliminate the mother and seduce the father figure — which she does by coming on to the ultra-masculine Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane). Yet Kat holds on to own naiveté and refuses to accept the truth about her parents. She is sexually ready to become a woman but mentally, she can’t deal with the secrets in her family.

The police investigation of Eve’s disappearance is of no concern to the film aside from being a way for Kat to meet Scieziesciez who compared to her father is a “quintessential male who willfully enables Kat to fulfill her daddy complex”.

Araki will not be surprised by his irreverently deconstructed the novel that the film is based upon and sues the film to discuss teenage sexuality while ignoring what has been one of his major themes in the past—LGBTQ identity issues. Araki in presenting his feminist look at the world uses Eve as an exaggerated example of the horrific effects of domestic oppression. “Like a bird hindered from flying by the bars of a cage, Eve is rendered powerless and worthless in our beauty-obsessed society”.

“DIVAN”— “Everyone has a couch. Not everyone has a couch with a story like this”.

divan

“Divan”

“Everyone has a couch. Not everyone has a couch with a story like this”.

Amos Lassen

“Divan” is the quest for a turn of the century Hungarian couch upon which Hassidic rabbis slept.

It follows the Pearl Gluck’s effort to find a turn-of-the-century family heirloom – a couch. She journeys from her birthplace, Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, to its origins in Hungary and back. The couch is considered holy because certain Hasidic rabbis had slept on it and it survived World War II and is in the filmmaker’s great grandfather’s house in Rohod, a northeast Hungarian town. In the tradition of storytelling, this is a visual parable about the Hasidic community that she left as a teenager. She trails the couch through a quirky landscape populated by Hasidim in Brooklyn, Holocaust survivors and ex-communists in Hungary, and, finally, the next generation of formerly Hasidic Jews on the margins of their communities in New York and Israel.

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“As this film begins, we hear the filmmaker: “Everyone has a couch story.” While it may not seem a likely source of drama and intrigue, the couch piece of furniture leads the filmmaker, her family, and her audience in unexpected and rewarding directions.

Pearl Gluck was born into the ultra-orthodox Hasidic sect of Judaism in Borough Park, Brooklyn in 1972. As a young woman, she began to stray and to satisfy her curiosity, she would find textbooks before her elders had censored them. She was finally able to experience the “outside” world on her own when her parents divorced and she and her mother moved to Manhattan. She did fine in the outside world earning a college degree and a Fulbright. But she also was upset about her relationship with her father and the past that she was forced to sacrifice to gain these opportunities. The only way she can think to appease her father without giving up her lifestyle is to hunt down an ancestral couch in Hungary, which is venerated by her father because of the learned men who slept on it decades ago.

On a superficial level this is the story about a piece of furniture but included are family politics and the mythology that surround this particular couch are fascinating. Pearl Gluck’s whole family knows that she is both a female and a Hasidic expatriate. Her unkempt curly hair and her bare arms make it painfully apparent the minute she steps into sight. While it may seem unimportant, it matters; because in Pearl’s world, no one wants to give a family heirloom to the black sheep of the family—much less a woman—even if this “heirloom” has been locked up inside of a barn since World War II.

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She does find the couch but when she does she finds frustration as well as excitement. Because she is a woman, she is not sure she can ask the man who’s keeping it to give it up. He, too, seems to have an emotional attachment to it. Furthering her frustration is the fact that as she becomes increasingly obsessed with this divan, her father becomes disinterested, and returns to his old efforts to find her a “good husband.” Nothing really goes according to plan.

What we, as viewers, do not expect, is that a film about a couch becomes more about a spiritual and familial journey of reconciliation than the story about furniture. Pearl strives to find a peaceful existence that ignores neither her past nor her present, and at the same time, she  works to bring her father back into her life. Her father is torn, as well—he loves his daughter, but can feel the scorn from the Hasidic community for his even associating with such a woman.

In telling these three stories of furniture, faith, and family, we see that the film switches back and forth between three distinct storylines. In addition to Pearl’s search for the divan through her family contacts, the film shows us a number of ex-Hasidim being interviewed on Pearl’s antique divan, and the story of the divan’s journey to the United States and restoration. In each of these storylines we meet some of Pearl’s idiosyncratic friends, family, and acquaintances. We follow her progress until ultimately she gets what she may have been looking for all along: her father visits her apartment in Manhattan, outside of the insular world of Borough Park.

With the focus on the divan and also allowing these other stories to develop in the background, we get several surprises and the story becomes much more than a couch tale. We overlook the low production values of the film itself and the somewhat poor audio because we are so involved in what is going on.

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Zeitgeist Films released the film on DVD and includes what they call “Odds and Ends”—a collection of extra footage, introduced by relevant questions and answers from film festivals, and brief glimpses at the previews and preparations for the release of the film. It’s a well-conceived collection, consisting of four pieces that total just about half an hour. The effort invested in tying the extra clips together thematically in each of the five to ten minute pieces, and in introducing them with question and answer footage from film festivals, pays off, making them more immediately interesting and less tedious to slog through. The most poignant of the clips is from a question-and-answer session at the film forum in New York City, where Gluck talks about the film’s reception by both her father and the Hasidic community.

Also included with the disc is a director’s statement. This four-paragraph statement contains some background information about the film and how its production began, but it also gives some hints about where the film ended up. As such, one should wait to read it until after seeing the film. It really doesn’t reveal much, but this is so much about taking a physical and emotional journey with Pearl Gluck that it is best to have no inclination about where it ends. The film comes to a moving, unexpected conclusion that takes all of Gluck’s questions about how to be a part-time believer and finds a somewhat radical solution. The ending elevates the film, because for one final moment of clarity, she allows herself to be seen in a light that’s natural, not just flattering.

“CASTING PEARLS BEFORE SWINE, VOLUME ONE”— Coming from Toby Ross

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“Casting Pearls Before Swine Volume 1”

Coming from Toby Ross

Amos Lassen

This is just a brief notice about an upcoming film coming from Toby Ross.

“Casting Pearls Before Swine is a collection of the most mind bending scenes from Toby Ross’ films, you get “Nothing to lose” from “Payton Collins” which has a lustful strangulation scene of a Janitor who stayed late one night in a school and did not live to regret it, A man on a Mission” from “Moon Over Hong Kong” about a CIA officer being tested for tasteless behavior before flying away on a dangerous mission, “In Deep” from “Like a Moth to a Flame” about s serial killer who offs people with his extra-large appendage, Girl s night out, from “Get a life” and “The Snob” about a young man who thinks he is better than anyone else and how he falls flat on his face at the end”.

“THE NEW NORMAL”— In Case You Missed It

the new normal

“The New Normal: The Complete Series”

In Case You Missed It

Amos Lassen

Emmy -winning Ryan Murphy promised to bring us a funny, heartfelt show about love, marriage, and hopefully, a baby carriage! California couple Bryan (Andrew Rannels) and David (Justin Bartha) have everything a fabulous gay couple could want – except a child. They think they’ve found the perfect surrogate, Goldie (Georgia King), a gorgeous single mom but here’s just one problem (or two or even a whole season’s worth). Goldie’s slacker ex is fighting for custody of their precocious daughter, and her grandmother (Ellen Barkin) is a wisecracking bigot. With a little work and lots of tolerance, this group just might become a family.

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A conservative moms group targeted the show before anyone saw it and has since been rejected by a Utah NBC station by programmers who did see it. What a way to drum up interest. (I remember years ago when the Catholic Church banned the film of Tennessee Williams’s “Baby Doll”. It was impossible to find a ticket to see it and Catholics who had never been to a movie stood in line for hours trying to buy a ticket—nothing sells tickets like scandal).

“The New Normal” was co-created by Ryan Murphy  of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” fame and is about a male couple in a committed relationship that decide to have a child through a surrogate. It is no more offensive than Mitchell and Cameron’s relationship in ABC’s “Modern Family,” there is one extremely brief kiss between the two guys, and the only offensive language spews from the Barkin’s mouth: You’d have to be an idiot not to see that her bigotry is played for laughs, a tradition that goes way back. (Remember Archie?).

The New Normal - Season Pilot

Bryan and David are a traditional sitcom couple, except that they’re both men. Bryan is a flighty shopaholic, while David is a more grounded OB/GYN who likes hanging out on the couch watching sports. One day, on a shopping trip, Bryan realizes he wants to be a dad. David is skeptical and says that a kid isn’t something you can take back to Barneys and so he is cautious. Nevertheless, the guys sign up for a surrogate through an agency and interview several hilariously inappropriate choices, including Gwyneth Paltrow as a Gwyneth Paltrow look-alike. Finally, they find Goldie (Georgia King, “One Day”), who had to put her dreams to be a lawyer on hold when, as a teen, she became pregnant with her daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood) who is a very centered, very precocious 9-year-old who speaks her mind on a regular basis.

Goldie tried to make a relationship work with Shania’s father, but finding him in bed with another woman is just the wake-up call she needs to start following her own dreams again and make an even better life for Shania.

We also have Nana Jane, a real estate  broker with perfect hair who hates everything and everyone but she likes “the gays” because they do such a good job with her hair.

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This is technically a comedy about the unlikely relationship that develops between a gay couple, the surrogate they hire to bear their child, and the surrogate’s gleefully racist grandmother. It features comedic actors, whimsical music, and many lines of dialogue that are, structurally, jokes. Some of the lines are even funny. It has its heart in the right place and contains an almost perfect array of sitcom elements— attractive and witty young leads, a cute wiser-than-her-years kid and a curmudgeonly older woman The show’s got a positive social message (love is love, no matter who you are, etc.) but there are two main obstacles, however, to the success of this show: pushiness and contempt. It is very comfortable operating as a kind of public-service announcement. I counted at least six bleary-eyed epiphanies followed by conspicuously brave speeches in the first episode alone. In this series, one must resolutely decide to be true to oneself as regularly as one decides to go to the bathroom. This has the effect of hammering the viewer over the head with a message as well as wasting a lot of dramatic energy that could otherwise be spent on character development. There are only so many times a television program can make you believe in the triumph of the human spirit within the space of a half hour. This show often feels more interested in speechifying about equality and love than actually performing and enacting those things. The series asks you to care deeply about the journey of its characters based solely on their social context—I identify with single mothers, I identify with gay couples, and so on—before you even know who those characters are. Politics lets Murphy sidestep the work of earning empathy.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t want to know too much about these characters. So the leading man is vain, shallow, effeminate, and addled. While Murphy tries to poke holes in that balloon by having Bryan’s partner, David (Jason Bartha), be a football fan, it’s hard to counteract stereotypes with other stereotypes. Viewers will likely be able to overlook this problematic arrangement, however, because it pales in comparison to Barkin’s explosion of slurs. Can a gay person exist on network television without a cranky old person there to make fun of him or her? This means that a majority of the jokes on the show are gay ones, presented without critique. At least Meathead yelled back at Archie.

When Barkin’s character calls Bryan a “salami smoker,” should we laugh? It’s the only joke in that space, and, tonally, it doesn’t seem like Murphy wants us to cringe. When she says a lesbian couple looks like “two ugly men,” is it meant as gritty realism? Is this show really so cynical that it either feels viewers (a) can only handle a gay couple glazed in orthodox bigotry or (b) will take laughs any way it can get them? What’s worse is not necessarily the jokes themselves, which are fairly banal homophobic slurs, but that the series presents them to us with such eagerness and pride.

“The New Normal” is insistent as it is about its moral agenda, and  sanctimonious about its politics but the series is not much of a political or moral statement. Indeed, it’s pretty suspect on both counts. It is less a series about non-traditional families than it is about the concept of non-traditional families.