The New Normal isn’t the first time we’ve seen gay dads (in this case, dads-to-be) on TV. But from Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland to LeRoy and Hiram Berry on Glee, they’re usually non-custodial fathers or secondary characters. The aughts brought sitcoms It’s All Relative and Normal, Ohio, both of which centred around gay fathers, but neither found an audience.
It wasn’t until 2009’s Modern Family that a successful network sitcom showed gay men being full-time fathers — and even there, their portrayal is stereotypical and desexualized. That’s something Glee and The New Normal creator (and out gay man) Ryan Murphy publicly criticized in 2010, stating that if he were to make a show with two gay leads, their kissing would be shown as no big deal.
And now he has. Whether Murphy conceived The New Normal in response to Modern Family or not, marketing materials have promoted the show as a bolder, more progressive alternative, with pointed taglines like “A post-modern family”. And Murphy was true to his word: his gay characters kiss, hug, and flirt, and we even see them (talking) in bed. In short, their relationship is given the kind of respect and the amount of screen time sitcoms have previously reserved for straight couples, which shouldn’t really be revolutionary, but is.
However, Murphy shouldn’t start patting himself on the back just yet. The show’s central couple, Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) fall into the same tired dynamic as many hetero TV couples (with one responsible parent and one fun one, usually the woman and man, respectively) and are comprised of one flamboyant, artistic type and one uptight professional, just like the couple on Modern Family and Will & Grace pals Jack and Will. Worse, The New Normal showcases the kind of retrograde opinions not given prominence in prime time since All in the Family went off air.
Ellen Barkin plays offensive grandma Jane, who is horrified that her granddaughter Goldie wants to act as a surrogate for Bryan and David. We learn in the pilot that her homophobia stems from catching her husband in the act with another man, but I’m less clear on the explanation for her free-floating bigotry, except perhaps that you know how older people are. Among her putdowns (brace yourself), she refers to a Mexican employee as “Hombre,” addresses an Asian-American woman as “Hello Kitty,” and calls gay men “fruit”, “salami smokers”, and “cheesepackers in that Sodom and Gomorrah fudge factory”. (Is somebody on a diet?)
To watch Jane suggest (whether tongue-in-cheek or not) that Bryan’s African-American assistant Rocky might use a separate bathroom feels more like a re-enactment of America’s recent past than the thrillingly controversial bon mot it’s intended to be. The in-real-life progressive Barkin knows her character is meant to be unsympathetic—she’s compared Jane to Archie Bunker—but the show is still, through her, giving space to bigoted sentiments too many people believe in.
Like 2 Broke Girls showrunner Michael Patrick King, Murphy seems to believe that being gay means he can be an “equal-opportunity offender”. The idea that membership in one marginalized group gives you the right to insult all others totally ignores how structural inequality and privilege work (both men are rich, white, cis and able-bodied) and how offensive this type of hipster racism is.
The theme of the show, that because we’re all so diverse there’s no such thing as “normal,” is admirable, but its execution is questionable. In a scene in the pilot, Bryan tells David, “Your definition of ‘traditional’ might need a refresh.” Then we flash to an older single woman who says she was too busy being “a whore” to conceive sooner, a mom with dwarfism who references her seasonal elf work (!), and a deaf Asian-American couple who sign that they can’t hear their kids crying. (Apparently Murphy thinks being deaf is hilarious.) While all of this plays lip service to equality, clumsily pointing out which groups are marginalized and perpetuating stereotypes about them for cheap humor simply encourages prejudice, and glosses over the fact that oppression isn’t just a state of mind.
Lesbians are a frequent source of so-called comedy in the show’s early episodes, but Slate’s June Thomas has suggested that we shouldn’t be offended, since the fact that The New Normal’s co-creator Ali Adler is gay means that even if we don’t personally relate, we’re laughing with lesbians, not at them. But while the lines may be self-deprecating, it’s still men who are speaking them. In fact, lesbians and bisexual women make up just 25 percent of the portrayals of LGBT people on network TV. Three current network sitcoms feature one or more gay male main characters, but there hasn’t been a lesbian lead in a sitcom since Ellen, which was cancelled in 1998 after the actor and her character came out.
Of course, Murphy loves to shock and we’ve seen this kind of insensitivity from him before. But his refusal to portray members of marginalized groups as more than walking punch lines is especially disappointing due to his perception of himself as inclusive and the fact that his previous shows have won GLAAD diversity awards.
When it’s not being crass, The New Normal is surprisingly sweet with some great performances, so the fact that the humor is too often limited to cheap shots and outdated stereotypes feels like a lost opportunity.