Oh, Ryan Murphy...
When I first read about The New Normal back in March, one of three gay-themed sitcoms in the pilot stage at the time (the other two were Partners on CBS and US -- also for NBC), I liked the idea of the series but for some reason was only moderately excited about it.
I now know why.
Between the fading Glee on FOX, The Glee Project on Oxygen, American Horror Story on FX and now The New Normal for NBC, super-producer Ryan Murphy is on a hot streak. But unlike Glee, which started off strongly before turning into a disappointment, Murphy's latest is a bit disappointing from the get-go.
The New Normal is a comedy about a committed gay couple who turn to surrogacy when they decide to have a baby together.
While it's great to see a gay couple headlining a TV series, Andrew Rennells' (Broadway's The Book of Mormon) Bryan and Justin Bartha's (The Hangover) David as a couple are more eye-rolling and head-shaking than entertaining to watch.
This is hardly the fault of Rennells and Bartha. Both are great in their respective roles. The problem is how these characters were constructed and written -- particularly Bryan, who fills broadcast TV's Jack McFarland void, but less flamboyantly (mercifully).
Rennells's Bryan and Bartha's David are quite divergent in how they are portrayed as gay men. But this divergency comes across as more of a statement about the diversity of gay men on the part of Murphy than a simple portrayal of two men in a committed relationship who want to have a baby together. Consequently, The New Normal falls back on conventional characterizations of gay men on broadcast TV sitcoms in order to make this point -- which could just as easily have been made without the conventionality.
Case in point -- the below still from a scene in the pilot:
To further this point, Bryan and David live in LA. Bryan and David are super successful in their careers. Bryan and David live in a very nice house. Bryan and David have a dog. Bryan (with his legs crossed) is a fashionista while David (with his legs in wide stance) is into sports. Bryan and David want to have a baby.
Enter the twentysomething Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King), who leaves her humdrum life and a politically incorrect grandmother (Ellen Barkin) in Ohio to head west with her ten-year-old daughter Shania (Bebe Wood) after walking in on her cheating, deadbeat husband. To earn some quick money, she signs up with a surrogacy service and is chosen by Bryan and David.
In typical Ryan Murphy style, there is an agenda. It stems from the title of the series itself and is touched upon a few times in the pilot. In an early scene, Bryan and David are sitting at a park. There is a short montage of "different" families. One mother is older. One mother is a dwarf. One set of parents are deaf (there is a funny line with these two about their kids not being able to hear them argue and them not being able to hear their kids whine). All of this is used to tell us what the "new normal" is instead of just showing us by virtue of the lead characters themselves, the family they're forming and they circle of friends they'll establish.
In a later scene, Goldie confronts her grandmother, who has tracked her down to take her back to Ohio. Goldie talks about how gay couples have just as much of a right to have children and provide a loving home for them and all that sort of rot. It's great and it's wonderful, but it's preachy.
The show is not all bad. His handsome face notwithstanding, Bartha's firmly-grounded David is so far the most compelling reason to watch and for this reason -- one scene with Goldie at the fertility clinic where his otherwise brave face cracks and he breaks down crying over the possibility of being a father. This for me is the single greatest moment in the pilot and enough of a reason for me to continue watching.
At the end of the episode, Bryan and David invite Goldie and Shania to live with them so they can help her realize her dream of becoming a lawyer. You gotta love sitcoms.
The beautiful thing about a lackluster pilot is that there is room for improvement. If Murphy and Company can put the agendaing and sermonizing aside, there's a decent series here. The premise itself certainly has greater legs than some of NBC's other fall efforts -- but this being NBC, expect them to muck it up somehow.
Also appearing is Real Atlanta Housewife NeNe Lekes as Bryan's assistant Rocky, who adds very little to the series and shows us nothing new about herself as a personality. Whether that can be attributed to the writing or not remains to be seen.
The New Normal premieres this coming Tuesday the 11th.