The New Normal: TV Review
9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11 (NBC)
Ryan Murphy, Ali Adler
Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells, Ellen Barkin, Georgia King, Bebe Wood and NeNe Leakes.
The series works too hard to comment on inclusiveness -- and doesn't work hard enough on the jokes or Ellen Barkin's version of Sue Sylvester.
The underlying premise of The New Normal isn't a bad one, just one that seems a bit dated. What's normal? Is every family fronted by a mother and father? Did they give birth to their own kids? Is every member of their extended family without flaws? Did no one in their lives do something outside of the norm?
"Face it honey, abnormal is the new normal," says one character on the show after an ill-advised montage of "untraditional" parents.
What series creators Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler seem to be saying is there's no such thing as normal and perfect; we're all flawed, we come to our lives from different roads, and nobody should be judged by it. Sounds fine as a personal essay or mission statement, but put into the context of a comedy it comes out half-baked -- earnest but wanting to be skewering as well.
In the show, two gay men in Los Angeles want to adopt a baby. A young Midwestern waitress and single mother finds herself re-evaluating her life because her boyfriend is cheating and her nagging, politically incorrect mother is driving her insane. So she flees to Los Angeles and -- well you can probably guess the rest. She's the surrogate, her mother comes to find her, and hilarity is supposed to ensue. But it doesn't, really, because Murphy and Adler opt for the caustic in a series that probably had its best chance of success playing it more subtle and more sentimental, tossing in the barbs judiciously.
Instead, what we get are two hammers hitting us simultaneously. David (Justin Bartha, The Hangover) is the gay guy who doesn't "act gay." His partner Bryan (Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon) acts overtly and obviously gay. Wacky, right? Except the two of them have zero chemistry, so the whole setup misses. Then there's Ellen Barkin as the politically incorrect grandmother Nana Jane, who's not averse to spreading her wrathful ignorance across the spectrum. Barkin is excellent in the role, just like Jane Lynch is wonderful as Sue Sylvester, but the over-the-top element of each should have earned them their own shows because otherwise their neon-obviousness detracts from the rest of the tone. (At least Sue Sylvester originally seemed like a welcome antidote to the schmaltz of Glee, before her character unrealistically embraced compassion, etc. In this series, Barkin is merely Ryan's Greek chorus with a bullhorn.)
Not that New Normal doesn't try to mix flavors here. Nana Jane's daughter, Goldie (Georgia King, who is wonderful here), is the super-sweet and a bit naive mother of a precocious 8-year-old Shania (Bebe Wood). Shania unfriends Nana Jane from Facebook for being a bigot and telling a childhood story that involves the term "Jew down my customers." Goldie is the sweet heart to Nana Jane's callous one, while calm David offsets Bryan's flaming stereotype. It's just a mashup that doesn't work because sentimentality and blatant snark clash so desperately.
Comedies with hugging and learning have their own issues, of course, but Bartha is a good actor who plays likable well and King is perfectly cast as Goldie. Wood's Shania also is sweet but funny, and that trio seems to be where the real show is. Early in the pilot, Nana Jane is disgusted by what she thinks are two gay men holding a baby and kissing. "Now with the PDA? Those ass-campers have some nerve." The visual joke is they're lesbians. Says Nana Jane: "I happen to like the gays. I couldn't get my hair to look this nice without them."
As for Bryan, he's out shopping when he says, flamboyantly: "Oh my God, that is the cutest thing -- I must have it!" It's a baby. He tries to sell the idea to David, who of course is watching a football game on the couch with a big masculine dog. David asks if the story can wait until halftime. "Is that when Madonna sings?" When Bryan gets to spill his newfound, life-changing wish on David, he says, "I want us to have baby clothes and a baby to wear them." David: "Sweetie, you know you can't return a baby to Barneys." And, in case you've missed this strand, Bryan tells the head of a high-end surrogate agency, "I would like a skinny blond child that doesn't cry."
What might work better for New Normal is if Nana Jane spins off into a road show comedy with Sue Sylvester. That would be brilliant. In the meantime, New Normal is two shows, neither of which quite get the tone right.