The New Normal?

09.13.2012, 12:14 PM

“That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen and I must have it!”

Since the person speaking that line has already established his cliché-gay bona fides by telling a clothing salesman that he wants to look like Mary Tyler Moore (circa 1972, it seems), we’re expecting the camera to pan to a glittering woolen sweater. No, silly – he’s looking at a baby. Even cuter than couture! The character, Bryan (Andrew Rannells), waves sappily at the cooing bon-bon, and then runs home to interrupt his football-watching partner, David (Justin Bartha), to tell him that they simply must have a baby – after all, they have skin that’s “flawless.”

Welcome to The New Normal, a show that begins with a pilot so…stupid that it’s surprising there’s an Episode 2. NBC is clearly banking on hoodwinking the audience into mistaking the show for a variant of the wildly (and understandably) successful Modern Family on ABC. Gay guys with kids! One is straight in real life, the other’s gay! (Zero points for guessing who’s who. Did I mention that one of them likes football?) Heaps of inside gay jokes! (OK, the one about Green Lantern did make me laugh.)

And to seal the deal, airlift in NeNe Leakes, who plays the one-note Roz Washington on the shark-jumping Glee. Here, she’s “Rocky,” Bryan’s assistant – although I had to listen to a “Fresh Air” interview to find out what Bryan does that even requires an assistant. He’s a TV writer/producer; according to Rannells, an accomplished Broadway actor, his character is loosely based on Ryan Murphy – who created The New Normal and also created the smart Nip/Tuck and the once-clever Glee.

But this show clatters off the tracks. It strip mines the worst kind of bigotry for guilty laughs (sometimes successfully, I’ll confess), (mis)using Ellen Barkin as Jane (“Nana”), an Archie Bunker-era spewer of hateful stereotypes. She’s much cleverer than Archie, and her “I’ll-say-what-everyone-else-is-thinking” turn seems intended to disarm the homo-skeptics watching the show by holding a mirror up to intolerance. But both her statements and her persona are too cartoonish for this strategy to work, and an early attempt to humanize her – she walked in on her father having sex with another man! that’s why she’s a bigot! – was just embarrassing.

And the show doesn’t do surrogacy any favors, either. The “new normal” refers to the family Bryan and David plan to have through gestational surrogacy. Here’s how it works for the rich: First, find an egg donor. If you have enough money, you’re in the Platinum Club and get your eugenic choice of A-list donors (“no fatties,” we’re reminded, as if we need a gratuitous insult to remind us of who’s hot and who’s not). Then, implant said egg into another woman, lovingly described as “an EZ Bake Oven except with no legal rights to the cupcake.”1 (That’s how the bowtied representative of “Expanding Families” tenderly describes the process.)

But wait! This “abnormal” “is the new normal,” Bryan tells David after the two spend a few minutes a local park. There, we’re treated to a fifty-something mother of triplets who describes herself as “a whore for too long,” who with the “help of a lot of drugs” created the three adorable tow-heads who bob about nearby. Then dwarfism gets short shrift, as a mother barely taller than her eightish-year-old daughter defends having a child despite the risk that the kid would also be a dwarf. And then drives off in a tiny pink car. David’s convinced! Who wouldn’t be, by this quick, “check off the freak boxes” display?

Let’s go back to the money. The “new normal” apparently includes affluence, because surrogacy is expensive. To its credit, the show doesn’t avoid the issue, even if it low-balls the amount required to create a child in this way. “$35,000 is a huge chunk of money,” says Goldie (Georgia King), when asked why she wants to gestate Bryan and David’s baby. (Of course, that’s not all: “A family is a family and love is love,” she adds. Let no bromide go unsaid.) According to Jonathan Kipp, the Marketing Director of Oregon Reproductive Medicine (a fertility clinic with lots of gay clients), the actual cost can run as high as $120,000 per attempt.

Finally, there’s the pink elephant in the room. Kipp and I discussed the curious omission of any discussion on The New Normal about adoption – the obvious alternative to surrogacy, and something that any gay couple could be expected to at least consider. The unfortunate suggestion is that surrogacy is the no-brainer choice for those who have the money, while adoption should be considered by, well, everyone else. Himself an adoptive parent, Kipp has an expansive view of how to help people create families in any way that works for them, and emphasized the importance of counseling and support for ORM’s potential clients – not all of them choose the surrogacy route.  But none of that nuance is in evidence on The New Normal.

Well, almost none. There’s one touching scene in the pilot, where David and Bryan are in bed discussing who’s to be the bio dad. At first, there was to be a spirited spermatozoic competition, but Bryan now says that David should win in a walkover. “Not being the baby’s bio dad doesn’t make me any less of a dad,” he says. It’s a gracious gift that suggests a depth of character otherwise missing from this, um, misbegotten show.

 

 

  1. By the way, EZ Bake Ovens don’t have legal rights, either.

17 Responses to “The New Normal?”

  1. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    Scathing take down, my friend. Good for you. John Culhane, legal scholar, media critic. Fasten your seatbelts people!

  2. I’d love a good, funny show on this general subject. It’s obviously a ripe subject for comedy. But I’m not surprised that this show is terrible, because Glee – which I so wanted to love — eventually drove me away because the writing was just so awful.

  3. Amy Ziettlow says:

    I did not catch The New Normal but I have to say that I am so relieved that there are others who tuned out of Glee in the past year or so–what happened?!? I was so addicted and then I just had to stop–for all I know they all never graduated…I think the Rocky Horror episode was the last one I saw…no wait, I did see the Whitney Houston tribute show because it’s Whitney and I am firm supporter of taking any Whitney hit and turning it into an a capella ballad–they turned “How will I know?” into a heartfelt tear-jerker–genius!

  4. This is total unfounded speculation, but I think what happened is that Glee was just too big a hit. I think that when a show gets that big and you’re the creator, your entire life turns into a weird roller coaster of more opportunities and responsibilities and decisions than any one person can handle, and to deal with all that and still retain the focus on story and character necessary to make a good show is almost impossible.

    Some people do it successfully. But I think it’s really hard. And very few hit shows have been big in the way Glee was big (extending not just into high ratings, but also into albums and concert tours).

    Incidentally – speaking of TV shows about blended families — I just discovered “Switched At Birth,” a drama about two teen girls who find out they were, er, switched at birth, and it’s surprisingly good.

  5. John Culhane says:

    I’m so proud that I’ve managed to drag this serious site down into the pop culture ditch with me! More on “Glee” than anyone was expecting, and for that I’m truly sorry…

  6. nobody.really says:

    Glee – which I so wanted to love — eventually drove me away because the writing was just so awful.

    Somebody — maybe at Slate? — remarked that Glee didn’t have plot twists as much as it had extended bouts of amnesia.

  7. Matthew Kaal says:

    John,

    On a positive note – this may the first article in ages where just about everyone at FamilyScholars is in agreement on something…Glee’s hap-hazard script writing is bringing us all together…just like Ryan Murphy intended…sort of…

  8. JHW says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with everyone else. I still love Glee. Yes, if you watch it, you have to deal with its manifest implausibility, serious inconsistencies of character, massive plot holes, multitudes of continuity issues, and all-too-common dismal failure to actually stand for the things it sometimes suggests it wants to stand for. But the music is usually good, it occasionally manages to be genuinely emotionally powerful, and I’m attached to some of the characters (Kurt Hummel especially) and want to know what lies in their future.

  9. John Culhane says:

    Matthew spoke too soon! It is, there seems, one in every crowd.

  10. John Culhane says:

    I mean: “There is one…in every crowd.” Sheesh. Nothing like a misquote to deflate the witty balloon…

  11. Mont D. Law says:

    I don’t know I can see lots of ways this show could be interesting and thought provoking, particularly after the baby is born. Will it be, probably not.

  12. fannie says:

    Barry,

    I love “Switched at Birth.” I think it deals with many issues, especially those that would be of interest to FSB readers and folks, pretty well.

    I’m also in general agreement about Glee. I have completely lost interest in it. To me it suffers from the same “let’s force a special topic of the week” failing that “The L Word” started to suffer from in its final years.

  13. “Switched at Birth” also has by far the best presentation of Deaf characters I’ve ever seen. It’s not perfect, but way more than head and shoulders above any other show I’ve seen.

    I did finally watch the “New Normal” premiere, and it did have a couple of funny moments, but was mainly just… mediocre? There was just nothing in it that would make me want to watch again. There’s also just something so annoying about the way TV is so eager to showcase the lives of the unbelievably wealthy (a problem I also have with “Switched at Birth,” to be fair).

    I’d really like to see a sitcom that had a blended or alternative family at the forefront, but had more of the tone (and class politics, and great writing) of “Roseanne” during its best seasons.

  14. Matt N says:

    once-clever Glee

    Lies! Sorry, this is one of my pet peeves. Glee was never good. Never. The pilot was about how a high school club with five members needs to gain more members through social acceptance and social acceptance through having more members. The whole plot is oriented around assimilating the cringe-worthy stereotypes (seriously – let’s make the gay boy effete and fashionable! Let’s make the Black girl an overweight diva! The only people who are characters rather than bundles of stereotypes must be simultaneously White and straight).

    The idea that Black people should seek to emulate White subcultures and not have any sort of independent social perceptions or consciousness, is not new. The idea that LGBT people (just kidding, Ryan Murphy’s gone on record saying he’ll never have male bisexuals or any trans people on the show) should blend in with the normal people, is not new. It’s not clever, original, fresh, or any other adjective along those lines.

    Phew, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I absolutely agree on your point that:

    The unfortunate suggestion is that surrogacy is the no-brainer choice for those who have the money, while adoption should be considered by, well, everyone else.

    I’m hardly surprised that “The New Normal” completely ignores a huge class inequality, as “Glee” should have been famous for taking a huge turn towards demonizing poor people in later seasons – as it held up gender-segregated private schools as an escape from homophobic harassment (away from the riffraff, which was presented as disproportionately Black, yeah they went there). Yes, you read that correctly – gender-segregated private schools as a haven from homophobia. Seriously.

    So yes, Ryan Murphy hates poor people. Also Black people. And trans* people. And I’m going to say he’s at least annoyed, in Dan Savage-esque fashion, by bisexual guys. And there’s been some really good arguments that his work approaches issues of disability from a really messed-up place.

    This was clear from “Glee”. I doubt we’ll get anything remotely better from “The New Normal”, now that Ryan Murphy has a highly successful show (if woefully problematic) to his name.

  15. Some stereotypes, and the prospect of getting away from them, are troublesome.

    I mean, you can say that the character of Kurt (was that his name?) in Glee is a stereotype because he’s “effete and fashionable.”

    But, of course, some gay boys and men really are effete and fashionable. The character of “Kurt” was a last-minute addition to Glee, because the actor auditioned and was too great not to include, and they wrote a character that fit comfortably inside the actor’s range.

    When I was a teenager and young man I was… how shall we put this… not very manly. I loved meeting out, exuberant, obviously gay men (which there were plenty of in 1980s NYC). They were my heroes, because they embodied a way of existing and having pride that had nothing to do with the standards of masculinity that I couldn’t meet.

    I do want there to be plenty of gay parts on TV apart from effete guys and butch girls. But I hope there’s always a place for lovingly depicted effete guys and butch girls. They’re important to show, too.

  16. Matthew Kaal says:

    I think what makes the character of Kurt resonate with so many viewers is the fact that while he started out as effete and fashionable, the writers actually filled out his character (largely because they realized that Chris Colfer, the actor portraying Kurt, is very very talented). Over the course of the show you see that besides being the fashionably effete gay character – he has become a brave, confident, generous, kind, and at times deeply flawed leading man who is one of the most beloved characters on TV today.

    I think what has helped with his popularity (and Ryan Murphy deserves credit for this) is that Kurt has been an active participant in his plot arcs, contrasting with many gay characters before him (on mainstream television at least) who have primarily been passive background actors who only feature in the plot arcs of others.

    You can tell that Ryan Murphy loves the character of Kurt, and gives his character special attention…one wonders what other characters (like Mercedes, who often felt like a stereotyped Effie White figure) could have been if this consistency was a part of each character’s arc and development.

  17. Mark Diebel says:

    “The unfortunate suggestion is that surrogacy is the no-brainer choice for those who have the money, while adoption should be considered by, well, everyone else.”

    It would be interesting to know whether this reflects a real value and choice that is being made or is basically a way to avoid adoption and focus on DC for dramatic purposes. Is adoption less desired and practiced than DC?

    I am relieved,however, that adoption is not being put up for easy humor since it is something usually so misunderstood in reality. Adoption is more about adopters than adoptees in practice. (Similar to THE NEW NORMAL being more about the parents than the yet to be seen baby…who will never grow into adulthood before the show expires.)