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.