All through the pilot for Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler's The New Normal, a chirpy sitcom about a married gay couple who hire a single mom as their surrogate, I kept wondering who it was aimed at. Your mom, maybe. Or that hateful old Gran Torino guy on my block who likes to get bombed, stand on his front stoop, and yell racist and homophobic comments at passersby, then remind them that if they step onto his property, he'll call the cops and report them for trespassing. Unfortunately, the Gran Torino guy is the one who desperately needs a show like this, but he'd never watch it willingly, and if he stumbled across it he'd curse at the screen. So, your mom, then. And a few million other people who will tune in hoping for a funny, perhaps mildly inventive new sitcom, but got Modern Family Lite instead.
"Oh, my God, that is the cutest thing I have ever seen, I must have it!" exclaims Bryan (Andrew Rannells), one half of The New Normal's central couple. Because he says the line while browsing a rack at a clothing store, we assume he's talking about a garment, but the camera moves to reveal — ta-dah! — an infant in a stroller. That having a child is more a fashion statement than a life choice for Bryan is treated as a sight gag, then later as an avenue for personal growth. When Bryan tells his beloved David (Justin Bartha of The Hangover) that he wants them " … to have baby clothes, and a baby to wear them," and says David can be the disciplinarian and organizer while he serves as the baby's playmate, I felt a chill. If a straight man said these things to a straight woman in real life, or on a well-written TV sitcom, you'd worry that the couple wasn't cut out for parenting, and the sitcom, being well-written, would address our concerns and find laughs in them.
But The New Normal (which premieres tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. before settling into its Tuesday nights at 9:30 slot tomorrow) isn't actually interested in what makes the human heart tick. It has that "Oops! Tee-hee! Did I say that out loud?" faux-naughtiness, dipping its big toe in taboo, then rinsing it with progressive messages. Like Glee — which Murphy co-created and co-produces, and which at least has (or once had) the saving graces of innocence and energy — The New Normal humanizes stereotypes without ever quite making them seem like people. David and Bryan's surrogate Goldie (Georgia King, a.k.a. Suki on Dexter) is a cheerful dishrag who finds her husband screwing a pneumatic-breasted Asian gold digger named Tabitha ("The United States is the most powerful country in the world," she cries, mounting him) and decides to start over on her own. She's indestructibly optimistic — a Goldie Hawn character, thus the first name, I bet.
David is reactive, patient, and mostly wise, while Bryan is TV's gay usual, a vain, high-strung, white Yuppie clotheshorse who wants to impulse-buy a baby. David and Bryan's many warm interactions don't counteract the sense that you're seeing the umpteenth variation on a too-familiar couple, apparently the only kind of same-sex union with which network TV is (mostly) comfortable. The show's most original character, Bryan's imposing African-American assistant Rocky (Ne Ne Leakes of Glee and Real Housewives of Atlanta), huffs and puffs appealingly, but is mainly there to support Bryan and David. Goldie's grandmother Jane Forrest (Ellen Barkin) is basically Archie Bunker with lady parts and a Junior League mom wardrobe. She mocks a lesbian couple for looking like "ugly men" and insists she's not prejudiced against Latinos because "when they opened the Chipotle here, I was the first of my friends to go, and that was Spanish food." The show primes us to laugh and gasp at Jane's reactionary blurts because she loves her granddaughter, a sentiment that evokes one of my favorite lines from The Producers: "Not many people know it, but the fuhrer was a terrific dancer."
Jane, Goldie, and Goldie's daughter Shania (Bebe Woods) represent the continuum of tolerance. On the low end, Jane pukes out sub-Limbaughian one-liners; in the middle, Goldie admonishes her mother's intolerance but can't bring herself to actively oppose it; on the high end, there's Shania, who accepts every kind of equality as a given and is distressed by people who don't. "Seems like they love each other, is all," she says, after grandma mocks the lesbian couple. This is one of the show's two interesting aspects: Its apparent belief that attitudes like Jane's weaken and fade as a civilization matures. But because this is a Ryan Murphy show, that thesis, once stated, lays down for a nap. The other point of interest is Barkin's performance. She's playing a role faintly similar to the one filled by Jane Lynch on Glee (another allusion in a character name), and she aces it because she's Ellen Barkin. If this show survives the season, I won't be surprised to see Jane driving it. Like Fonzie, J.J., Kramer, and other charismatic supporting characters, Jane pulls our attention by being more disreputably vital than the "likable" ciphers around her.
Like so many broadcast network sitcoms, The New Normal is as edgy as a butter knife, and pleased with itself for holding reasonable views that a sizable percentage of the public still won't entertain. (A Utah NBC affiliate said it wouldn't carry the series because it was "inappropriate on several dimensions.") Any good vibes it generates are nullified by fondness for trafficking in stereotypes while pretending to undermine them. This show tells as many smiley-faced lies about parenthood and relationships as your average hetero-dominated Hollywood rom-com, but because the main couple is gay, all the actors are likable, and the dialogue repeats pieties with which no decent person would disagree, we're supposed to nod our heads and think, "Yes, yes, good for you, show! How brave you are, and adorable, too!" One step forward, one step back.