TV writer/producer/director Ryan Murphy has had a solid run of it. He went from “Popular” to “Nip/Tuck” to “Glee” to “American Horror Story.” Now, he’s trying his hand at sitcoms with “The New Normal.” Murphy’s never shied away from humor, but he’s always had the hour-long format to play in. That’s allowed him plenty of room in which to shoehorn his trademark social criticism. “Glee,” for example, has about a 1:1 song-to-sanctimonious-speech ratio. Clocking in at a network-standard 22 minutes, “The New Normal” doesn’t leave a ton of room for the funny. But Ryan’s working on it.
The show follows a happy, successful (not to mention gay) couple in Los Angeles. Bryan (Andrew Rannells, the Tony Award-nominated Broadway actor from The Book of Mormon) and David (Justin Bartha from The Hangover films) are missing just one thing: a baby. Enter Goldie, a single midwestern mother and waitress who ends up in L.A. fleeing her cheating boyfriend and her domineering grandmother. With few options on the table, she volunteers as a surrogate mother. That doesn’t sound like a plot that would have much life beyond nine months, but “The New Normal” finds enough excuses to unite these disparate characters into a wacky new family unit.
It’s clear that Murphy is jealous of ABC’s “Modern Family” for having introduced a happy, successful (not to mention gay) couple to mainstream America. In fact, “Modern Family” already worked over the surrogate mother angle. But that isn’t going to deter Murphy from putting his own spin on the story.
“The New Normal” is a much tighter show than “Glee”—which has ridden off the rails since season one in a tangled mess of characters and melodramatic, not-at-all-believable plot twists. Real-Housewife-turned-Murphy-muse NeNe Leakes seems a bit extraneous here as the boys’ sassy personal assistant—but, for the most part, it’s a manageable ensemble with a clear story direction. The attention-getter is Ellen Barkin as Goldie’s abrasive nana. She’s an Archie Bunker-style racist/homophobe, who refers to gay people as “ass campers” and “salami smokers.” I suppose it’s funny in a “that’s not funny” way.
Being a Ryan Murphy production, the moral of the story—“Abnormal is the new normal!”—is hammered home as often as possible. I suspect one of the reasons “Modern Family” is such a success with both gay and straight audiences is that Mitchell and Cameron aren’t forced to act as a mouthpiece for all gay couples in America. They’re gay, and that’s maybe the third or fourth most interesting thing about them. Bryan and David, on the other hand, never pass up the opportunity to shout “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” There are times and places when that’s quite useful. Viewers who are willing to commit to “The New Normal,” however, are probably fine with gay marriage and don’t need to be preached at every week.
The pilot episode has certainly got heart, but it’s shaky in parts. The opening sequence implies the entire show is shot in flashback—a conceit that’s dropped almost immediately. There’s one random fantasy scene and a sequence in which several characters talk directly into the camera. Ryan might want to nail down a consistent tone here, rather than experimenting right on camera. But with a little time and a few more jokes, “The New Normal” could work.