“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.
- By the way, EZ Bake Ovens don’t have legal rights, either. ↩