Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The New Normal: Pilot (1.1)

Despite every show on Ryan Murphy's resume arriving with a fully-formed gay sensibility, he's unusual in that he's never been renowned for creating gay characters that proved particularly positive. Gay men are either swishy sex freaks or over-earnest victims, gay women are flexible, and bisexuality is a phase. Or, for women, something to be used to grab a guy's attention. All of which makes The New Normal, Murphy's sitcom about a gay couple and their surrogate, something of a risky move. He's an auteur who seems to believe he's an instigator of some kind of grand social change, and while there are certainly factors to somebody like Glee's Kurt Hummel that are overwhelmingly positive, a lot of his work with gay characters leaves a bitter aftertaste, pandering more to cliches and stereotyping than anything else.

The New Normal, like Glee before it, wants to have its cake and eat it too. All of the gay cliches are there, from the Madonna references to the obsessions with materialism and weight loss, while the protagonists themselves are generic 'screaming queen/uptight straight-acting man' stereotypes. But it's also a show with (attention now) a message. So we get a bunch of monologues about cultural evolution, what truly makes a family, and how gay parenting is a positive thing. All of this is entirely valid, but it reaches a point where you wonder if The New Normal would work far better as a statement piece if a literal, verbal statement was entirely absent. Then again, with that you risk falling into Modern Family territory, where resident gays Mitch and Cam are so sexless and uncontroversial that they become, you know, "conservative-friendly", dodging any kind of political message at a time when gay parenting remains such a hot-button subject.

Obviously, it's a complex artistic choice, and the show will find both support and opposition regardless of which road it walks down. But the presence of Ellen Barkin as a Republican cartoon full of racist sentiments and brainless bigotry makes you roll your eyes in disappointment, The New Normal opening itself up to accusations of being nothing but left-wing propaganda as soon as she appears on-screen. Way to halt any social progress, show.

One thing the show does have going for it is the casting, unsurprising considering Ryan Murphy's knack for it. Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha make for absorbing leads, so engagingly sweet and intimate when the script allows them room to breathe. Barkin, too, is a fantastic actress, once you move past the histrionics of her character. There are also a couple of fun guest spots, from comedy vet Michael Hitchcock to the hilarious Leslie Grossman, while one of the pilot's funnier moments is a surprise cameo from a Murphy favorite.

That last note actually brings to mind this show's biggest flaw: it's not all that funny. Despite this being Ryan Murphy's first official sitcom, it lacks the laughs of vintage Popular or even early Glee. Hell, a random episode of American Horror Story probably produces more giggles, unintentional or otherwise. Most of the attempts at humor are safe and far too reliant on hoary predictability, right down to the precocious little girl with a disproportionate knowledge of adult life and the logistics of social networking. Ugh.

Despite the cliches and the lack of comedy, however, I can't help but feel like there's something here, and it's probably a show that deserves at least a couple weeks' worth of viewing to see if the writers can smooth out the edges. Or at least until Ryan Murphy throws in a serial rapist or a fake pregnancy to spice things up. He's schizophrenic that way. C

Ryan Murphy, Ali Adler Director Ryan Murphy

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