Thursday, August 30, 2012
Pilot Review: The New Normal
The New Normal (Tuesdays at 9:30 on NBC; Premieres September 11)
I really appreciate that NBC doesn't often take the conventional route when it comes to their programming; they're not afraid of a little controversy. Last year they sparked hot debate in middle America over The Playboy Club, and this year the same is happening with new comedy The New Normal. One affiliate in Utah has already refused to air it, the same one which wouldn't air The Playboy Club last year, but I'm holding out hope that The New Normal doesn't go the way of last season's flop, because there's actually something worth talking about going on here.
Ryan Murphy's (Glee, American Horror Story) new show is somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of its presentation. The primary plot follows an affluent Los Angeles gay couple, Bryan (Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon on Broadway) and David (Justin Bartha, National Treasure, The Hangover), who have it all. Well, almost... they want to have a child. On what begins as the flighty and spoiled Bryan's whim, the couple starts the process of finding a donor ovum and surrogate. Across the country in Ohio, Goldie (British actress Georgia King) is living with her grandmother Jane (the inimitable Ellen Barkin) and daughter Shania (Bebe Wood). After discovering her husband of nearly ten years cheating on her, Goldie steals Jane's car and drives cross-country for the opportunity she never got because of her marriage, to attend law school, and so that her daughter can learn an important lesson about never allowing yourself to get stuck. She ends up falling in the laps of Bryan and David as the seemingly perfect surrogate to their unborn child.
The New Normal isn't exactly reinventing the wheel here. It's about dysfunctional families, nontraditional relationships, and dreaming big while everyone says you shouldn't. What makes it fresh and contemporary is the fact that Bryan and David are two men looking to raise a child. Gay parenting isn't a topic tackled all that often in television, and when it is it usually is a depiction of two women; there's still a very harsh stigma surrounding two men parenting. It's assumed that two women is more acceptable because of the "maternal instinct," but that's not to say that two gay men can't be good parents. The New Normal hasn't gotten very deep into any of the issues inherent in this debate, but the pilot does a nice job of setting up the dynamic between the two men who will eventually raise a child.
Speaking of the two men, both Rannells and Bartha are doing pretty great work here despite playing stereotypes. In the pilot's opening moments, Bryan is creating a video log of he and David's journey toward parenthood to one day show their child, and at just the mention of the baby, his eyes well. This is a stark contrast to his character's other scenes, where he comes off as a queeny, spoiled child; before getting into bed every night, David makes him macaroni & cheese and rubs his feet. Bryan spends the majority of the episode talking about designer labels and his fear of vaginas. Clearly, he's the feminine one in the relationship. David, on the other hand, loves watching football andbeing outside with their dog. And he's a gynecologist, so he spends the whole day looking at vaginas and delivering babies. Clearly, he's the masculine one. But despite having to play what are (right now) stereotypes, both manage to find the basic humanity in their characters. Those are the moments that make us care about their journey and root for them, no matter how offensive their characterization may sometimes be.
Helping them out on this journey is Goldie, and I have to say she's the weakest character. King plays her all wide-eyed, baby-voiced, soft-spoken, and people-pleasing. She seems like a real pushover, so it's no surprise that she was knocked up at fifteen and trapped in a life as a waitress whose only familial connection is her bigoted grandmother. By the time she's comforting David while being implanted with his child, it all seems too fake. Her grandmother is another story, however. Barkin barges onto the scene with her commanding screen presence, spouting the episode's best one-liners. Her scene with Nene Leakes (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Glee), who plays Bryan's assistant Rocky, is the pilot's best and funniest. Her constant barage of unaware bigotry feels honest despite being so ludicrous. And newcomer Wood is adorable as Goldie's daughter with her oversized glasses.
The strength of the pilot does rely heavily on its great performances, as the script is somewhat lacking. There are some great lines here, mostly for Rocky and Jane; my favorite is in the aforementioned scene between the two of them: "The last time I checked this diamond, speckled watch my boss bought for me without his consent, it was 2012. Now why don't you take your Callista Gingrich hairdo and your racist mind back to the past or the South, where they belong." But other than some fun quips like that, the dialogue is fairly standard and sometimes even cliche (David says: "I don't know, my dad messed me up pretty good. Imagine what two dads could do."), and it doesn't help that the structure sometimes gets away from Murphy and co-creator Ali Adler (Glee, Chuck). The action is abruptly interrupted at one point to hammer home the thematics of the title The New Normal when random characters turn to the camera and start telling stories of why their families aren't traditionally normal. It's sudden and awkward, and not particularly funny. But I suppose it's just a way for Murphy to point out that even the show itself isn't normal. Though I swear I haven't rolled my eyes so hard in a long time when Bryan quips, "Abnormal is the new normal." We get it! And aside from that, it's a decently funny half-hour. It's not uproariously funny, but it's often clever and witty, which is more than can be said for a lot (most, even) of other comedy pilots this season. It's definitely worth a look, and even worth thinking and talking about.