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"The New Normal" Review: My Two Dads Are Fabulous!

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | September 14, 2012 | Comments ()


NewNormal1.jpg

Somehow, the TV shows that set out to bust stereotypes always in turn rely on them, and heavily. Ryan Murphy seems determined to fill his (and Ali Adler's) newest creation, NBC's "The New Normal," with even more caricatures than his Fox hit, "Glee." Murphy apparently believes that he can bust stereotypes by using them -- presenting a quintessential jock, or loner, for instance, and developing them enough that the viewer soon sees beyond their labels (a la The Breakfast Club). It's not a bad idea, but Murphy and Adler are painting with fairly broad strokes here. Like "Glee," "The New Normal" has at its center an uplifting message: It's OK to be different, and families come in different shapes and sizes, much less shades and sexes. But unlike "Glee," "The New Normal" is built on a very specific setup: A straight woman serving as a surrogate for a gay couple. Obviously, the series is making a point -- it's in the very title -- that situations like this are no longer uncommon, and considering the backlash it already is receiving from groups such as the insufferable One Million Moms, the buttons Murphy wanted pushed are being pushed. But how much more effective would the message be if it were made sans grandstanding? Making the surrogacy/adoption the main issue of the series -- the reason it exists -- means making the surrogacy/adoption the main issue. Isn't the point ultimately that it isn't one?

The cast of stock characters isn't helping matters, so let's address them right away. Here's the lineup: A gay couple, David (Justin Bartha) being the more manly one because he watches sports and Bryan (Andrew Rannells) the flamboyant one with OCD -- "Obsessive Chic Disorder"; Bryan's sassy black assistant, Rocky (reality TV star NeNe Leakes); a wide-eyed, Midwestern blonde waitress, Goldie (Georgia King), who has a string of poor life decisions trailing behind her, including a deadbeat and cheating husband; Goldie's precocious and offbeat Shania (Bebe Wood), who gets really into impersonating Little Eddie from Grey Gardens; and Goldie's racist, bigoted grandmother, Jane (Ellen Barkin), surely a relative of Archie Bunker. With Shania in tow, Goldie flees her dead-end Ohio life (and Jane, who raised her and still supports her) for Los Angeles, where she soon signs up to be a surrogate mother with plans to use the big payday the job entails to start over. David (a successful doctor) and Bryan (who is successful at something, but I'm not sure what) are remarkably sweet and welcoming to the girls, even offering their luxurious guest house as a home for the two.

Jane, or Nana, isn't as easy-going, and here is where Murphy and Adler inject cruel humor into the mix. Most sentences that come out of Nana's mouth include derogatory remarks about gays, or Jews, or African Americans, or Hispanics, or you name it -- she has a dismissive and almost other-worldly opinion on them. But does she really need to be a cartoon-level bigot? The average grandparent would be concerned if their broke and somewhat aimless granddaughter fled across the country with a young child and immediately decided to be a surrogate mother, whether the new parents are gay or not. The culture clash would work just fine without Nana's continuous drivel and everyone else's protestations and speeches about love and acceptance. Presenting the opposition as laughably hateful is a cop-out; there's no room for adult discussion with someone who calls gay men she has just met "salami smokers." Ellen Barkin carries the role well, at least, with her "Callista Gingrich hair" and sharp tongue (much less profane than her real life style). But she's another Sue Sylvester -- this schtick can only last so long.

Rannells (Broadway's "The Book of Mormon," HBO's "Girls") and Bartha (National Treasure and Hangover films) are sweet as the key couple, settled-down thirtysomethings ready to expand their family, although their chemistry feels more like friends than partners. Their straight male friends try to talk them out of the adoption plan, saying that by being unable to reproduce themselves, they dodged life's biggest bullet: parenthood. Viewers are even treated to a short montage of the men talking to the camera and discussing how hard life is now that they've spawned. In this way, "The New Normal" joins numerous other series, from "Raising Hope" to "Guys With Kids" to "Baby Daddy," built around the idea that having a kid changes one's life. How novel. The writers have their work cut out for them to make viewers care about the pregnancy from the get-go instead of presenting it as a natural development in a larger narrative. For example, ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" featured a gay couple, Kevin and Scotty, who eventually adopted a daughter. The same message was there -- two men can raise a kid and provide a loving home -- but it was the outcome of years of viewers watching their relationship grow. The adoption was a non-issue; the couple went through the same struggles all couples do in the adoption process. "The New Normal" is jumping right into the story. The presence of Nana seems designed to present needed conflict, not actually add anything substantive.

For as dull as King is as Goldie and as middle-of-the-road Bartha is as David, Rannells is charming as Bryan, no matter how ridiculous the character. He gets some of the best lines (referring to vaginas as looking like "tarantula faces" is a new one), and you can't help but root for him and David to be dads if only to see the mishaps the clueless Bryan will get himself into. "The New Normal" has its moments of humor and sweetness, and even though Goldie's story of self discovery (she wants to be a lawyer and wear expensive suits like on "The Good Wife") isn't original, her life with David and Bryan could be worth watching. With Shania, they're already forming a family of sorts, and surely the baby will only complicate the dynamic on arrival. There's plenty of drama to mine in this setup, but it's difficult to determine how realistic "The New Normal" wants to be. Don't tell us what "normal" is; show us.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • mike_10009

    Let me start by saying that I almost always agree with the writers on this site, especially Dustin and the ladies (I'll leave out the arguments in favor of "Love Actually"). In this instance, though, I'm a little less in agreement. The first thing that should be mentioned in a review of this show is that, as pilots go, this one was strong, and that should say something in and of itself. As for your character assessments, I find them rash and the comparisons are a tad, well, broad. If you watch the first TWO episodes of "All in the Family," you're presented with a very heavy handed Archie Bunker, not unlike Ellen Barkin's character. If you, however, compare the first two episodes of this show to the entire run of "All in the Family," you're making a comparison to nine years of character development. Now, what I will give you is that Ryan Murphy's track record in development is spotty. If we're to use "Glee" as the model for this show's future, then this show really won't get much better than they are right now, which is still very good, ESPECIALLY for network television. Hello, "Go On"? "Guys with Kids"? ("American Horror Story" is more of an anthology, so that's a hard one to use here.) I'm just hoping that he can make this one grow in a non-Glee way. A little glimmer of that was in the use of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose cameo was pretty funny here versus her run on "Glee." As for those who have made their judgments already, go with god. It seems like there's a good chance you'll either come back with your tail between your legs or you'll come back with the "it turned a corner" line. Either way, I predict, though, that most of you will be back. < cough > Girls < cough > New Girl < cough >

  • Wembley

    I think your subtitle would have been a better show. If the little girl had shown up as David's unaware of daughter from back when he was trying to be straight, Murphy might have had something. Still, a lot of shows need 6-8 episodes to really find themselves, so it's not a foregone conclusion in my book, yet.

  • e jerry powell

    Yes, but that title would add an element of Paul Reiser-driven horror.

  • e jerry powell

    Just can't go there. I have developed a severe allergy to Ryan Murphy, and no amount of gay can get me past it. I'll just spend another hour a week at Pacific Design to make up for it.

  • I've watched two episodes now, and I'm not a fan of the show. I am, however, a fan of the kid. Her Little Edie impersonation was so spot on it was equal parts hilarious, fascinating and spooky.

  • Anna von Beav

    that was the best part of it for me.

    Also, it made me jealous that I can't do a Little Edie that well.

  • Agreed. :)

  • anikitty

    I could not watch this show. The grandmother may be hateful in order to portray a particular stereotype--but it's still didn't entertain me. If someone in my family talks like that, I shut them down. I just don't want to hear it, on tv or in real life. It exists but I don't have to tolerate it.

  • alwaysanswerb

    He gets some of the best lines (referring to vaginas as looking like “tarantula faces” is a new one)

    I really could do with less of the 'gay men hate vaginas' meme. I mean, yes, I've met gay men who do say things like that, but most of them are probably about as fixated on how vaginas look as I (a straight woman) am, which is to say: not much.

    It's just more "girls have cooties" in a different flavor, and I could use less of that in general too.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    To be fair, it was in context. They were at the clinic getting ready to implant the embryos in Goldie and David was going with her and she said "Bryan, I'd like you to come to" and then we got a line about how he was cool in the waiting room because vagina = tarantula faces. Also, David is a gynecologist, so there's at least one gay guy on the show who's cool with the bearded clam.

  • Maguita NYC

    1 - Cooties DO come in different flavors.
    2- What kind of a scary hairy cootie did that guy ever first see to compare it to a Tarantula, of all things!!!

  • 2 - perhaps this happened to him: http://oglaf.com/8legs/

    NSFW...duh.

  • Maguita NYC

    Great review Sarah! This made me want to give the show a try, if only to see the outrageously cougarlicious Ms. Barkin spew bigotry.

    And btw, "But does she really need to be a cartoon-level bigot?"... Have you met the likes of Jane Pitt? You will be surprised how in many states today, what we perceive as hateful things Barkin's character might be spewing, IS The New Normal. Sad, but nonetheless true.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I hoped we were past the flamboyant gay stereotype when we got Dave on Happy Endings. But then I realized that even he is often shown opposite a glaring stereotype. Will & Grace, Modern Family, this crap. Apparently you can't have two normal gay guys on a network TV show.

  • i feel that way sometimes, and then i think of the many gay men i have known, and how many of them were either flamboyant, or down right flaming catty bitches, and then i get confused about stereotypes.

  • beartato

    Well, I've known some really grades-obsessed people of Asian backgrounds who were great with computers. And everyday on the subway, I see loud, large black women with busted-ass weaves and inch-long brightly colored fake nails shrieking into their cell phones.
    But also, everyday I see Asian Americans who don't fit into that little box, and black people who don't look like a KKK members wet dream.
    "Gayness" isn't a character trait any more than "blackness".

  • i know tropes, and i know stereotypes. and i have lived in communities where they were concentrated. but I know what a stereotype and a trope is, so thank you, but i don't need a listen up and i will fix you, thank you very much. i have years of live in experience of cred to outweigh my inflammatory speech. my gay friends gleefully called me square. thats just how it was with those flamers, god bless their catty but wicked wit. bad movies would not have been the same without them. you know who you are Jim and Martin. Pansies.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Since I know more than a handful of very flamboyant gay guys, I'm going to say that they *are* fairly normal.

    [there was more, but I see the argument was mostly resolved]

    Besides, the swing is over-heteroing gay characters, which isn't necessarily a great choice either (like casting only light-skinned black actors)

  • lowercase_ryan

    that's a good point.

  • Jezzer

    Flamboyantly gay is just as normal as "normal" gay. What's right for you is what's right for you. I know you, Ryan, and I know you'd never be intentionally hurtful on issues like this, but when a girly gay guy sees something like, "Why can't they show normal gay guys instead of flamers?" it does send a tacit message.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. Shit, now I don't know how to say it. What I was trying to say, and I hope this makes sense without being hurtful, is that I'm terribly bothered by the way gay men are depicted on television. For a while it felt like (to me) that gay characters on TV were flamboyant characters, then the "normal gay guys" were introduced but networks have (also, to me) been hesitant to let a gay guy be a gay guy without the ever-present flamboyant character there to frame the audience's perception of both characters. It wasn't a knock on flamboyantly gay men, it was a knock on, what I see as, the networks insistence on labeling gay characters. I hope that makes sense and I hope you know I love "flamers" enough to never ever call them that.

    also: stop yelling at me. <3

  • mike_10009

    I know you don't mean to be hurtful (and I believe that you like and support the gays), but even this redaction inflicts some pain. Please stop trying to make every gay man be, well, not gay. I hate the kind of personal argument that I'm about to make, but here goes: I'm gay. I live in New York and do a lot of work in Los Angeles and London. 75% of the gay men I know are more on the Bryan end of the scale than the David end. I've been told I fall on the David side. In fact, a friend just told me last night that Bryan and David are like an uncanny representation of my partner, Paul, and me. That being said, I can tell you that I only recently realized I fall on that David (or Max from Happy Endings) end of the scale because I spent the better part of 35 years trying to be someone I'm not, trying to disprove everyone's theories, and trying to thwart everyone's gaydar. Ultimately, that's who I became. I'm okay with it, I guess, but I've come to truly respect those who didn't capitulate in what they liked or what they wanted to do or in how they expressed it. I'm sure you'll hear a lot of your friends on this site jump to your defense and tell you that I'm wrong, that so many gays are not this "stereotype," and that there are a lot of gay men who really are on the David end of the scale naturally. Maybe they're right, but it's not been my experience. My experience says there's a lot of the ones that might make you uncomfortable enough — and again, I do think you support the gays, but a little self-examination never hurt anyone — to have written this comment. My experience also says god bless them for being girly, flamboyant, salami smokers.

  • Jezzer

    Oh, I didn't mean it was hurtful to me. We both know I meant Geep.

    <3

  • lol (is that allowed on paj?)

  • lowercase_ryan

    I swear to Godtopus, I have the best friends.

  • Nimue

    Max is Happy Endings resident gay. And you have to make sure you say it with the Great Lakes nasally a.

  • lowercase_ryan

    shit, I have no idea why I said Dave. Weird. When the hell is that show coming back on?!?!?

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