The New Normal Reviewed: Gay Parenting in Primetime

The New Normal

“The New Normal.” The title is fitting, as gay leading roles on network television sitcom have, in fact, become the “new normal.” I’m not saying that gay characters in supporting roles on network TV haven’t been around for decades. They have. Remember back on “Friends?” Ross’s ex-wife was a lesbian. And Stanford and Anthony on “Sex and the City?” And of course there was “Ellen,” which ran for four years but was canceled in 1998, shortly after Ellen’s character came out and the show was criticized for becoming “too gay.” We’ve come a long way since then; now it’s par for the course to have the token gay character or two. Currently on network TV (just off the top of my head), we’ve got Oscar from “The Office,” Jack’s assistant Jonathan on “30 Rock,” pretty much the entire cast of “Glee,” Tobias from “Arrested Development,” Max from “Happy Endings,” and Dean Pelton from “Community” (not to mention a whole slew of cable homos). But with the exception of “Ellen” (94-98) and then “Will and Grace” (98-06), we haven’t seen a ton of gay leading roles. Until now.

This season, gay is the new straight. We have “Modern Family” (Mitch and Cam are one of the three family units on the show), “Partners,” with one gay and one straight architect business partners, and of course, “The New Normal,” where a gay couple hire a surrogate to have their baby. Gays are everywhere! An added bonus: the conservatives hate it. “We have yet another addition to the pro-gay, anti-Christian genre so popular on TV these days,” complains one blogger about “The New Normal.” Give me a break. Straights ruled the first 70 years of television, now it’s our turn!

So, in case you didn’t tune in Tuesday night or online, on “The New Normal,” we’ve got the usual stereotypes: one gay dude (David) that likes sports and the other (Bryan) who likes shopping. (David has to remind Bryan that, “You can’t return a baby to Barney’s.”) They are a wealthy, committed couple that decides the only thing their relationship is missing is a baby. Enter Goldie, a single mom at her wits end after discovering her boyfriend cheating on her and so fed up with her living situation and crazy grandmother that she turns to surrogacy for some cash and requests a gay couple, (she was disgusted when her bigoted nana scoffed at a couple of frumpy lesbian moms earlier in the episode). The boys choose Goldie to carry their embryo, and so the show begins.

Let me start by saying that I’m totally psyched about another network TV portrayal of a committed gay couple trying to build a family. For too long gays on TV were either overly promiscuous or oddly asexual. This daring show, like “Modern Family,” tackles the controversial issue of gay parenting with humor. But unlike like “Modern Family,” where the gay family is only 1/3 of the plot, “The New Normal” brings it front and center. While unfortunately I don’t think they did it as well as “Modern Family” did, there are a lot of other great things about the show—and I’ll get back to those. But first, a short critique on the show itself (as opposed to the hype surrounding the show).

Like many sitcoms, this show is chock full of clichés, stereotypes, and overall cheesiness. At times it seems to come off more like a parody of itself than an actual show to be taken seriously. I find their attempt at humor too contrived and the messages too preachy. Honestly, I haven’t seen so many moral messages to the tune of sentimental “everything’s going to be ok” sitcom music since “The Cosby Show.”

“It’s ok to be gay. It’s ok to be different. It’s ok to get older and have your priorities change. It’s not ok to be a racist bigot.” They are great messages, don’t get me wrong. I just wish the writers would give the audience a little more credit. We get it. We don’t need for the characters to spell it out for us at every possible opportunity. Like when Goldie says to her daughter Shania, “It’s important that you see me as an independent woman…so you that someday, you can become one.” Really? Who says this to an eight-year-old?

While the cast is stellar, the characters they are playing fall short of convincing. I love Ellen Barkin, for example, but I found myself hoping that her “crazy Nana” character wouldn’t make it past the pilot. The over-the-top racist one-liners of her uber-conservative, gun-toting role are so slapstick they belong in the likes of the Hangover, not in an NBC sitcom. Luckily, I think she was toned down slightly for episode one versus the pilot, but the writers have their work cut out for them to make her character more funny and less annoying. Andrew Rannells is adorable, and while his big goofy grin and childlike innocence worked on the Book of Mormon, his attempts at sincerity leave a lot to be desired. I’m also disappointed in the stereotypical “butch” and “femme” roles of the couple. While it can be argued that Cam is certainly a stereotype, “Modern Family” did a much better job with creating two well-rounded gay characters with dimensions (i.e. Cam is also the one who loves sports).

But I’m writing this review from a gay parenting perspective, so my views on the sincerity and humor in the show aren’t particularly relevant. As I mentioned, the show does, in fact have great messages. (I just wish they were a little more implicit.) And although Nana caused more groans than laughter, I definitely laughed out loud at many of the more subtle (and even not so subtle) jokes said by the other characters. My favorite:

Bryan and David sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
First comes love. Then comes the inability to marry.
Then comes a stranger and an invasive medical procedure.
Then comes a baby in a baby carriage.

Which reminds me; a friend I had lost touch with sent me a facebook message the other day: “I read that blog you put on here about getting pregnant and the cost and all the hoops you had to jump through to get where you are, and it really made me think about how different it is for families to bring a child into the world. All I did was forget to take my pill.”

This brings me to what I do love about “The New Normal.” It’s a wake-up call to the average prime-time-watching straight family (like my facebook friend) that it isn’t easy for gays to create a family. All families are not created equal. Some take a ton of work. There are no accidents, no “oops” moments. Each child takes years of intention and planning and desire. The process requires so much commitment and love from the couple to be able to face these challenges and push on, day after day. The show reminds us that despite the craziness and the hoops we, as gay-parent-wannabes, have to jump through to create our families, what it all boils down to love and perseverance. Yes, “The New Normal” is full of stereotypes and clichés. But if it weren’t, straight people wouldn’t watch it and this crucial message would fall on deaf ears.

This isn’t another gay show for gays (think “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word”); this is prime time. I praise “The New Normal” for making straight people want to watch and learn about what goes into becoming a gay parent. And honestly, straight people don’t want to watch a show that says “look, we’re just as boring and mundane as you.” They want to be entertained. And gay stereotypes and crazy grandmas are entertaining. David and Bryan are likable guys and if even one straight person watching feels connected to them in some way, they might think twice at the polls when voting on gay marriage, or gay adoption, or the Defense of Marriage Act, which among other things denies health benefits (such as prenatal care) to same sex spouses of federal employees.

So, who knows. Maybe “The New Normal” will change the world. Or maybe it won’t make it past one season. I guess it all depends if something else becomes the “new gay.”

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