You’ll recognize the gay couple at the center of The New Normal if you’ve watched much television in the last five years. They’re upper class WASP-y men in good shape. One of them is more feminine and likes shopping, while the other one watches football and could “pass” as heterosexual. They are both completely non-threatening in every possible way.
That there’s already a trope for the representation of gay male couples on television is a victory of sorts for the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. It’s also a disappointment to see such an uncreative pairing at the center of a brand new show. If a couple of aspiring gay dads were enough to get an NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City to refuse to carry the show, creator Ryan Murphy (of Glee fame) could have put a little more effort into showing us something we haven’t seen before.
Instead we get Bryan and David. Bryan (played by Andrew Rannells) is the queeny stereotype, interested in fashion and appearances. He even has a sassy diva personal assistant (played by reality television fugitive NeNe Leakes). David (played by Justin Bartha) is literally first introduced to the viewer while he is watching a football game and hanging out with his large friendly dog—no trembling teacup Chihuahuas for him!
Bryan sees a cute baby while he’s shopping and decides he wants one. That’s it. He talks about it like the baby’s an accessory, because he’s that kind of gay. After the briefest of discussions about fatherhood, they’re off to find a surrogate mom.
At the same time, Goldie (Georgia King), a young mother saddled with a cad of a husband and a brutally nasty grandmother (Ellen Barkin), is realizing her life’s dream of becoming a lawyer has been derailed by her responsibilities keeping the family above water. Goldie and the couple collide when she decides to try to get her life back on track with the money she’ll earn from serving as a surrogate mom.
As is typical of Murphy’s oeuvre as a show creator, much of the humor in The New Normal comes from people being nasty to each other, particularly women. Bryan and David’s first choice for a surrogate mom turns darkly horrifying fairly quickly. Barkin’s openly racist and homophobic Jane strives to import the vibe of Glee’s humorous harridan Sue Sylvester to the proceedings. It doesn’t fit well, at least in the pilot. Jane lacks any sort of teeth as an antagonist, and her ravings are just so much cartoonish nonsense, but then again the same can be said for Sue now.
The pilot ends with the idea that this is a comic series about the development of a non-traditional family. In other words, it’s a story that will progress, unlike a sit-com like Modern Family that has a general static space where the mayhem develops from. The challenge, though, with a progressive series is that developments need to be earned—it needs to make sense, even in a comedy. Nothing feels “earned” in The New Normal. As the pilot ends, there’s still no real sense why Bryan and David really want a child. There’s no real sense why they want to get directly involved with Goldie’s life. There’s no real sense why Goldie gets attached to them so quickly. They just do these things.
The same flaw has gutted Glee, which started essentially as a zippy, darkly comic new iteration of The Mickey Mouse Club, only to sink into a morass of misguided after-school earnestness and mysteriously appearing and disappearing plots and characters. Nothing on Glee is truly earned. Characters complain and sing and complain and worry and sing to get what they want. Things just happen. Characters don’t ever grow. They just learn the same lessons of tolerance and working hard and fighting for what they want. Over and over again. The characters are all demographically appealing ciphers and the only plots (when they’re not learning Very Important Lessons) are about people being mean to each other or arguing over who gets to have a solo.
I found the most intriguing character in the pilot of The New Normal to be Goldie, because she’s the one whose character progression makes the most sense. The woman starting her life over is hardly a new character concept, but there’s enough attention paid to her background for it to work. She’s the true source of the pilot’s inertia, not the gay couple.
Based on just the pilot, I have doubts The New Normal will break Murphy’s streak of interesting story concepts that collapse due to lack of focus and self-discipline. Glee is a muddled pile of pandering nonsense. American Horror Story started off as an unfocused disaster that found itself in the middle of its first season and then lost it again at the end. The New Normal doesn’t even start with anything new, so where is it going to go?
The New Normal premieres Tuesday, Sept. 11, on NBC at 9:30 p.m. eastern time (8:30 central) but the entire pilot can be viewed online here.
The fourth season of Glee premieres Thursday, Sept. 13, on Fox at 9 p.m. eastern (8 central).
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