(Note: The New Normal aired its Series Premiere episode on Monday and aired a second episode at 9:30 Tuesday night, which will be its regular timeslot. This review is based solely on the premiere episode.)
The New Normal is the latest creation of big time TV showrunner Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story) and displays all of the virtues and defects typical of his work. As I’m not a fan, I noticed the defects far more, the biggest ones being the over-the-top, one note characterizations, characterizations which at times had the effect of reinforcing the very stereotypes and bigoted thinking that Murphy probably thinks he’s combating, and the generally broad, shrill nature of the material.
The most problematic character, and most problematic aspect of the show, is Ellen Barkin’s, the most gleeful, over-the-top bigot on American television since Archie Bunker. The trouble is it’s now about 40 years since Archie Bunker’s heyday and the idea that any otherwise seemingly successful, well adjusted adult would be so cartoonishly, vocally bigoted about seemingly everyone is just ridiculous. And it’s not just that she’s bigoted towards gay people or has a problem with gay couples having children, which would be believable and relevant to the show’s premise, it’s that she’s bigoted towards black people, Jewish people, and Asian people too for some reason.
Seriously, almost every single line of dialogue Barkin has is her using some kind of ethnic, racial, or homophobic slur and/or saying something ridiculously bigoted and retrograde about the people she’s talking about. And if this all didn’t make it clear enough that her character’s a bigot, one of the very first lines of dialogue spoken to her character is Bebe Wood, who plays her great grand-daughter, saying “Nana, you’re a bigot! I’m unfriending you,” as if that hadn’t already been made clear by the multiple bigoted things she’d already said within the first two minutes of the pilot. There’s no joke here, other than the very mild joke of little kids and old people being on social networking sites, which TV writers still seem to think is hilarious in and of itself. It’s just Murphy’s need to triple underline the already ultra-broad script.
Another problem with Barkin’s character is that the show wants to have it both ways. At times she’s just a bigoted monster there for (I guess?) comic relief, while at other times the show tries to humanize her. Late in the episode, she explains that the reason she has such a problem with gay men is because her husband turned out to be closeted. She walked in on him with another man and the experience was traumatic for her. Okay, but then why is she bigoted towards Asians, Jews, and African-Americans too?
The very second scene of the premiere is a particularly queasy example of everything that’s wrong with both the show and with Ellen Barkin’s character. After introducing us to Barkin’s character and the show’s female lead Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King) with a scene in which Barkin’s character (hilariously!) mistakes a lesbian couple for “ugly men,” we’re then introduced to Goldie’s loser boyfriend Clay (Jayson Blair, and no not the disgraced former journalist, just a white guy who has the same name as him). Despite the fact that he lives with Goldie and fathered their child (Wood) nine years ago he’s in the process of cheating on her with an Asian girl played by Jessica Lu.
Asian-American women on American TV have for a long time pretty much only been portrayed as either evil, slutty, weird or some combination of all of the above and Lu’s character does nothing to change this. The camera cuts to Clay and her having sex and the proceedings are filmed in the style of a POV porn video from his perspective. First of all, this is uncomfortable because although according to IMDB Lu is 27 years old, on MTV’s Awkward she is currently playing a sixteen year old. Adding to the ickiness and the racist subtext is the fact that Clay makes her say “The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” while they’re having sex.
Goldie walks in on them and it’s revealed that Goldie had only been gone for six minutes but that was enough time for the Asian girl to get to her man (Slutty!) because she was “hiding in the toolshed.” (Weird and slutty!) After Georgina leaves, Lu’s unnamed character tells Clay, assuming she’s going to be moving in, “I’m gonna need lots of room for my wigs.” (Weird!) That any attractive woman of any ethnicity would want to have a tawdry hookup with Clay, who’s presented as a sad sack loser and is raising a nine year old daughter with another woman, is completely unbelievable, but for The New Normal it doesn’t matter. She’s just another broad, contrived plot device put there to get our heroine out of Ohio and to California to become a surrogate mother for a gay couple.
Barkin’s character comes in to give both Lu’s character and Clay a talking to and calls Lu “Hello Kitty.” From the way the scene is portrayed, it seems like we’re supposed to think Nana’s racism is okay in this case because it’s directed at a woman who in some way wronged our WASP heroine. Later in the episode, when Lu helps Barkin track her grand-daughter and great grand-daughter to California using twitter, Barkin says “You people are so darn good with computers. And thanks for helping build the railroads.” But you see it’s her character that’s being racist not the show itself, right? Right?
But Barkin’s character isn’t the only broad, offensive, or broadly offensive major character on the show. There’s also Bryan, (the suddenly ubiquitous Andrew Rannells) the “gayer” half of the gay couple whom Goldie is acting as a surrogate for. Though he avoids some of the more old-fashioned “mincing queen” stereotypes exemplified by Modern Family‘s Cam character, he is still presented as being entirely vain and superficial. He decides he wants to have a baby entirely on a whim and for shallow reasons. He’s shopping at an upscale department story, sees a cute baby and says “That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen and I must have it,” like it’s just another cute accessory. So, the show will probably set the cause of gay people raising children back a good bit by making it seem like gay couples only decide to have kids for superficial and selfish reasons, but that’s a small price to pay for this “progressive” show that’s explaining “the new normal” to all the squares out there man.
Bryan’s husband is David, played by Justin Bartha, the charismaless void who was the putative lead in The Hangover. David is the “regular guy” part of the couple. You can tell this because he’s introduced watching a football game with a big dog lying on top of him. When Bryan says he has something important to tell him, David tells him to wait until halftime and Bryan asks if that’s when Madonna performs. (Ha!) Bryan then tells him about the baby “whose skin was flawless by the way.”
In case the point of the show wasn’t clear enough from the title and from all the writing thus far, David in so many words asks “Do you think it’s really a good idea to bring a baby into the world in such a non-traditional family?” This is followed by a scene in which Bryan and David sit in a public park and look at the vast diversity of families in front of them and Bryan says “Face it honey. Abnormal is the new normal.” (What is this, a sitcom or an Atlantic magazine cover story?) After that, a series of different parents in the park break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera about their diverse experiences. But, true to the spirit of the show, their monologues basically just reinforce stereotypes and demean those experiences. For instance the “old mom” who recently had twins by a sperm donor from eggs she froze when she was a younger says in a gruff, “New Yawk” accent that she “was a whore too long” when she was a younger and that’s why she couldn’t find a husband and settle down.
Look, I don’t want to come off as a “politically correct” scold. A lot of this stuff would be more forgivable if the show was simply funnier. And a lot of the material actually works better than it has any right to due to the skill and charisma of the cast (aside from Bartha that is). But for an alleged comedy The New Normal just isn’t that funny. It’s more in the vein of the “all over the place” or “dramedy” tone of Glee than that of a half-hour comedy, and the only moments that work are the sentimental ones, not the comedic. The scene where Bryan tells David why he wants him to be the “bio-dad” was genuinely sweet and affecting and another scene where the two dads buy Georgia a business suit and tell her they want to help her with her thwarted dream of being a lawyer worked similarly well. It should also be noted that first episodes are very difficult to pull off well and that’s why many TV critics grade them on a bit of a curve.
By definition, especially for half-hour shows, premieres have to introduce the characters in the simplest, fastest way possible and they’re often made more subtle and more complex in later episodes. Still, with Ryan Murphy’s track record, I’m not too optimistic.