“The New Normal: The Complete Series”
In Case You Missed It
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.
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?).
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.
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.