Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal 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. If, however, the pilot ended with a title card that read, “Paid for by Americans for Mitt Romney,” it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising. All the teary-eyed monologues about love would be revealed as the seductively faulty logic of the depraved, and we would realize that we’re supposed to be identifying with the bigoted grandmother played by Ellen Barkin the whole time. Instead, The New Normal is a nominally progressive comedy with more gay jokes and regular old racism than Gallagher’s stand-up act.
Murphy, the creator of Glee, as well as last year’s hottest mess, American Horror Story, has his heart in the right place. While network TV is filled with comic shows about bromances, “nerdy” women attempting to “have it all,” and dysfunctional couples/families/talk-radio hosts, no series has yet succeeded in one-upping Modern Family as a half-hour comedy wholly about a family with same-sex parents, or even a same-sex couple of any sort. The New Normal, then, might have been one small step for network TV, one giant leap for mankind.
Murphy has engineered an almost perfect storm of sitcom elements. The New Normal is populated with attractive and witty young leads (Justin Bartha, Georgia King, and zeitgeist-hopper Andrew Rannells), a cute wiser-than-her-years kid (the fantastic Bebe Wood), and a curmudgeonly older woman (Barkin). What’s more, the show’s got a positive social message (love is love, no matter who you are, etc.) and that home-video naturalist aesthetic that’s so hot nowadays. Put Raising Hope, Modern Family, Arrested Development, Glee, and Parenthood in a blender, throw in a splash of Ellen, and you can’t go wrong, right? Somebody get Barkin an Emmy outfit.
There are two main obstacles, however, to the success of this show: pushiness and contempt. While not quite the conservative propaganda ad I suggested, The New Normal 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. Murphy’s had a lot of practice being inspirational on Glee, but there are only so many times a television program that isn’t the Olympics can make you believe in the triumph of the human spirit within the space of a half hour. The New Normal, in this way, 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. I could go on at greater length about how dismally the charming, if maybe too theatrical in this context, Rannells is wasted on the gay stereotype he’s asked to play. (Bill Hader’s Stefon on Saturday Night Live is arguably a more nuanced queer character.) For example, Rannells’s Bryan decides he wants to have a child when he sees a cute one at Barney’s. He wants to have a baby the same way he wants to buy a pair of designer pedal-pushers. Gays are so funny. I hope they achieve marriage equality!
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 Archie Bunkerisms. Barkin—who, in real life, is an outspoken gay-rights advocate—plays the young, socially conservative grandmother of King’s surrogate, and, aside from a bizarre monologue at the end of the first episode, nearly every word she utters sounds like it was cut from a somehow less humane and gracious Don Rickles act. Can a gay person exist on network television without a cranky old person there to make fun of him or her? Likely due to the success of Cloris Leachman and Ed O’Neill in similar roles on Raising Hope and Modern Family, respectively, Barkin gets a lot of screen time on The New Normal, and, strangely, her incessant berating of gays, Asians, and African-Americans is rarely registered with more than an “aw, shucks” eye roll from the rest of the cast. Functionally, 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? Short of providing a laugh track, every one of these bon mots is set up as a laugh line, and I think it’s fair to ask why. Is The New Normal 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.
If the payoff, as it most certainly will be, is that Barkin’s character eventually grows to understand and love her new family, I’m not certain the setup will have been worth it. If The New Normal succeeds, will it have succeeded as a series about a family or as a series about the hilarious friction between cranky coots and pie-in-the-sky youngsters? Queerness, in other words, might become trivialized as a generational disagreement. A few months ago, The New Yorker ran a cover to celebrate the one-year anniversary of New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage. The illustration, titled “June Brides,” showed two women with identical hair and lipstick wearing wedding dresses and veils and holding a bouquet of flowers. In one sense, the illustration was meant to proudly commemorate a step toward marriage equality. But it’s also very easy to imagine the exact same illustration with the exact same title, published 50 years earlier as a wry, conservative comment on changing mores. “These,” somebody might have said after a haughty chuckle, “are the June brides of today!”
The New Normal is far more ambivalent than this illustration. As insistent as it is about its moral agenda, and as sanctimonious about its politics, the series is not much of a political or moral statement. Indeed, it’s pretty suspect on both counts. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to produce a show about gay life that’s constantly undercut by bigotry and stereotype. The New Normal is less a series about non-traditional families than it is about the concept of non-traditional families. If you agree with the show’s politics, then The New Normal will blithely reaffirm your assumptions without challenging or engaging them. If you disagree, don’t worry. That’s normal.