Credit where credit's due: Perhaps no current TV producer has found so much mainstream success by pursuing offbeat or fringe-appeal subject matter as Ryan Murphy. Starting with his perhaps too-clever-for-The WB teen show Popular and continuing with the disturbing psychosexual dramedy Nip/Tuck, the horror melodrama American Horror Story, and the primetime musical (!) after-school special Glee, few can argue that Murphy makes safe creative decisions. Regardless of how you feel about those shows (or, more pressingly, whether those shows actually remain good beyond their first seasons), Murphy deserves our respect for bringing something new to the table with each new project. That trend continues with The New Normal, his single-camera sitcom created with Ali Adler for NBC's rebooted comedy lineup. On paper, a show about two gay men who hire a surrogate to carry their baby simply could not have been greenlit on a major network before 2012 and probably by no producer with less clout than Murphy. But while The New Normal is certainly a watershed moment in television history, it also bears some unmistakable—and unfortunate—Murphy trademarks. Namely, it not only sings to the choir, it frequently makes us cringe.
At one point in the pilot, our heroine surrogate Goldie asks the two fathers-to-be Bryan and David (the fantastic Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) if they'd like to be present when she gets inseminated. Bryan responds matter-of-factly that no, he'd rather not, since to him women's genitalia looks like "tarantula faces." Taken out of context, that's an awful-yet-hilarious thing to say to a woman, but in the context of The New Normal, we're supposed to like Bryan, not write him off as a woman-fearing cliché of a gay man. This, after at least three jokes in which Bryan objectifies an infant as simply an accessory and openly wishes for a child that is "blonde, skinny, and doesn't cry." Again, perfectly funny jokes for an unlikable buffoon in a Christopher Guest film, but this show asks us to be on Bryan's side, and more importantly, to sympathize with the plight of childless gay couples. It's an uncomfortable fit, particularly for a gay viewer like me who desires nothing more than for gay people to be featured in lead roles where their gayness is not (1) their defining personality trait, or (2) a tired cliché. So yeah, I'm in the choir, Ryan Murphy, but these portrayals of gay men are making me consider resigning.
After premiering the pilot online and then running it after The Voice on Monday, last night NBC debuted The New Normal's second episode, "Sofa's Choice," in the show's official timeslot of Tuesday at 9:30pm, billing it as the series' official premiere. We at TV.com love to talk about the differences between first and second episodes, since second episodes usually feature the new, permanent sets the show will be filming on, as well as a more locked-down cast and sensibility. In many ways, the second episode is the real indicator of a show's quality or longevity, so I'm pleased to say the second episode of The New Normal showed a marked improvement. Most of the things that bugged me in the pilot were improved upon in the second episode: Both Bryan and David got fleshed out; Goldie made more sense as a character; Goldie's wise-beyond-her-years daughter was made more weird-beyond-her years (via her truly funny obsession with Grey Gardens); and even Bryan sort of toned down his jokes that might make us doubt his ability to be a good father. It was a start.
Unfortunately, even with those improvements, some serious red flags remain. In particular Ellen Barkin's increasingly tiresome Nana character, who in the pilot could have gone either way, but is now officially one of TV's worst new characters. It's not even that she's a poor man's rip-off of Arrested Development's Lucille Bluth (down to the stolen joke about gay people doing her hair), it's that her hateful one-liners are so unfunny and uninspired, it makes Goldie less likable just for even putting up with her. (Seriously, lots of people have cut ties with family members for less hateful behavior.) I understand that Nana's a villain, but I guess it just rings false that she'd put her hate so front-and-center in every conversation she has. Women like this should be fakey, scheming, and manipulative—not loud, racist blowhards. If Nana isn't toned down soon, this show could become unwatchable quickly. Same goes for NeNe Leakes' Rocky character, who initially served as a charming counterpoint to Bryan's finicky ways, but in the second episode couldn't articulate a punchline to save her life. At one point Nana barged in on Rocky while she was on the toilet (this show does love its potty humor) and questioned whether the bathroom shouldn't be whites-only. Or something? I didn't even get it! What California resident in 2012 openly makes pre-segregation insults? And rather than fly into the righteous rage we as viewers thirsted for, Rocky just sort of muttered something and the scene was over. Ugh. Pointless.
Don't get me wrong, The New Normal has all the ingredients for a classic comedy series: An insanely talented cast, rewardingly clever dialogue, attempts at emotional depth, and especially a bravery in how it addresses certain political topics at a time when public opinion about them is still being formed. This could very well prove to be a television show—like All in the Family before it—that television historians will look back on as era-defining. That is, if it doesn't implode from lack of ideas. I'm not sure if the gestation and birth of a single baby is enough to hinge many seasons of a show on, and it's worrisome that BOTH of the first two episodes dealt with whether Goldie was even pregnant. (Spoiler: She is.) But as long as the characters continue to evolve into believable people (witty, intelligent, hilarious believable people), The New Normal's prospects look pretty good. I may currently be eying the exit, but for now, I suppose, my robes stay on.
What did YOU think of The New Normal's first two episodes?