Thursday, September 13, 2012
SCENE + SCREEN: The New Normal
Thursdays at Justin + 6 are SCENE + SCREEN with Hollywood heartthrob, X. Alexander. He has another blog called Hard in the City. You should probably check that one out, too.
Hello, boys! (And perhaps a stray girl or two.)
For my inaugural post, I was going to give myself a carefree introduction and then segue into a general short but sweet movie-related topic. But then I remembered The New Normal, NBC’s sitcom from Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, currently streaming on NBC.com. And a topic was born! (To a surrogate mother, then raised by gay men.)
First of all, full disclosure: I hate Glee. I know, I just lost half of you, who are now boycotting this blog on principle. Glee has experienced a bit of a backlash over the past year or so (due to a dip in quality, I hear — considering how bad it was at its peak, I shudder to think). But I hated Glee back when the entire rest of the human race was lapping up Ryan Murphy’s Kool Aid (or Slushee, I guess, in this case).
So I was pre-disposed to dislike The New Normal just as much or possibly more, both because of Murphy and also because the concept itself seemed such a desperate bid for pats on the back from a very specific demographic — to the extent that it should have been called either Hey, Liberals — Watch This! or Shove It, Republicans. (Not that I am vehemently opposed to telling hardcore right-wingers to shove it.)
It’s impossible to treat The New Normal as just another fall sitcom. Even its title aggressively pushes its politically-charged agenda. We live in a time where it’s finally okay for a high-concept network comedy to feature a gay couple as leads, but do not yet live in a time where a network comedy can feature a gay couple as leads and not make a huge deal about it. You can sense the meticulous attention paid to every single minute detail, from how “gay” the characters are to whether or not we see them being physically affectionate. For many of us, The New Normal is hardly new — covering territory also explored in Modern Family and The Kids Are All Right, or hell, even The Birdcage. None of those felt the need to shove it down America’s throat, so to speak, the way The New Normal does. But for a lot of the casual viewers who stumble across this show, this might actually be as “new” as the title suggests.
In the pilot, we meet Bryan (Andrew Rannells of The Book Of Mormon), an effeminate quipster who likes to shop, and David (The Hangover’s Justin Bartha), a gynecologist who watches sports — because gay people watch sports too, conservatives! (Well, only a few.) The New Normal covers its bases by featuring both the familiar sassy gay and the elusive (on TV) more “masculine” gay (but not too masculine — he does burst into tears once). David is very clearly the “Will” to Bryan’s “Jack,” effectively answering the most pressing question about any gay couple — who is the top and who is the bottom? Bryan is essentially the exact same character as Glee’s Kurt (Chris Colfer), which is fine. The New Normal does a pretty good job of making Bryan a gay stereotype who’s believable and funny, rather than a gay stereotype who trots out the same stale jokes we’ve heard spewed from virtually every other sarcastic gay on TV. This being a sitcom, you can’t really blame Murphy for going for the obvious caricature, since he does provide the show’s funniest moments.
We are also introduced to Goldie (Georgia King, the “Grace”) and her tell-it-like-it-is/older-than-she-looks grandmother Jane (Ellen Barkin, the “Karen”), as well as Goldie’s precocious bespectacled daughter Shania (Bebe Wood... the “Rosario”? Okay, I’ll just stop with the Will & Grace comparisons). Jane is a bigot — a racist homophobe so right-wing she pulls a gun on Goldie’s cheating husband. Wise-beyond-her-years Shania says things like: “You know, this whole thing just when live streaming on Twitter?” and knows what an “extremist Christian cult” is, but is unaware that you can’t drive to Hawaii. Technology references are usually dated within a week, so let’s hope they cut that out. (Especially since it’s impossible for anything to be live streaming on Twitter?) Anyway, to make a not-that-long story a bit briefer, Goldie decides to become David and Bryan’s surrogate, hilarity ensues.
Goldie’s a bit too simple and sickly-sweet to be compelling or realistic, and her decision to carry someone else’s baby seems like it might require a bit more consideration. David and Bryan also jump into parenting without much thought, but whatever, it’s a sitcom. Barkin fulfills the Jane Lynch role nicely, just bitchy enough to be fun without toppling over into total cartoon. Bartha is just fine as David, but the real secret weapon is Rannells, who finds just the right note for a character who could easily come off as a shrill, annoying caricature. Most surprisingly, there are a couple of moments of real, genuine sweetness, all involving his character.
Naturally, there are a few cringe-worthy moments, like when The New Normal breaks form to have a dwarf, a deaf couple, and an aging ex-whore speak directly to camera about how they, too, can raise children! It’s like an after-school special by David Lynch, and it’s a train wreck. Is this comparison necessary? Is this really the category NBC places the gays in — the “elderly deaf homosexual midgets who used to prostitute themselves” box? I know there are viewers out there who would do so also, but they probably turned this show off once they realized it was not just about two “roommates” named “Babe” and “Sweetie” who are looking to raise a baby together. This is exactly the sort of tone deaf pandering moment I half-expected the whole show would be — but fortunately, they’re few and far between.
You can certainly sense the network’s hands all over this. They’re obviously trying to calibrate everything juuust right to appeal to the widest possible demographic — inclusive and inoffensive to gays, but broad and accessible to appeal to fans of Two And A Half Men. (Yes, such creatures exist... somewhere.) So we get a handful of preachy moments that hit the show’s thesis squarely on the head (as if the title didn’t do it enough). “Abnormal is the new normal!” “You can be whatever you want to be!” A few lines of dialogue seem to be lifted directly from Facebook memes. Bryan even has a bitchy black assistant, because gays love their bitchy black women!
So there are a lot of reasons why The New Normal shouldn’t work, and almost doesn’t. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to calculatedly Send A Message, because sitcoms aren’t really meant for that. At least, not so directly. But this being the pilot, I imagine future episodes will be shorter on the soap-box moments, longer on the character-based comedy. And even if I wish there was a show on the air that didn’t have to try so damn hard to please everybody, at least there’s this one.
Here we see two men kissing and holding hands and calling each other pet names on a network sitcom every week, and except for one very misguided deaf/midget/whore comparison, it isn’t condescending or offensive. That’s progress! After all, Will & Grace was largely responsible, in large part, for normalizing America’s understanding of what gay life is — more quips, fewer whips — and now The New Normal takes that a step further. (Provided it doesn’t get canceled after three episodes like 98% of shows that debut every fall.) The New Normal is obviously not going to instantly convert anyone opposed to same-sex couplings to go march in a Pride parade, but even if they don’t watch the show, they’ll see commercials and billboards. The image is out there, and just seeing two men and a baby with the word “normal” stamped on it is bound to have some kind of trickle-down effect.
Best of all, no one spontaneously bursts into a Kidz Bop-esque version of a Top 40 song. Not even the really gay one.
So. If HBO is that cool bisexual aunt who bought you lube for your fifteenth birthday, then NBC is our straight-laced grandfather who loves golf and mallards and never gave homosexuality a second thought until his grandson came out to him — and now he’s trying really, really hard to prove that he’s on board with that. Awkwardly. Emphatically. At times inappropriately. But hey — he’s trying.
And if NBC is trying, too, in their blatant, somewhat forced and overtly politicized way, don’t we have to be at least a little bit grateful?