The New Normal risks sinking under the weight of its good intentions. “Good intentions” can be relative, of course, and in the case of a family sitcom created by Ryan Murphy, they come with some obvious caveats, for example, some jabs at social and formal conventions as well as some energetic redefinitions of “normal.”
The show—which sneak-previews on 10 September after The Voice before it takes up its regular slot on Tuesday nights—owes much to Modern Family, specifically, the idea that the nuclear family is no longer the only or even the primary model. Previous challenges to this norm have been offered on TV before, by The Simpsons, Family Guy or Malcolm in the Middle, all showcasing “abnormal” characters who behave as badly or as well as anyone else.
This premise is established as soon as The New Normal opens on a new adoptive father, Bryan (Andrew Rannell), as he’s recording an emotional video message for his new baby. Tearful but not too sentimental, Bryan appears enthusiastic and also terrified, a familiar range of emotions that solicit our good will. From here, The New Normal flashes back in time to introduce that baby’s mother, before the baby’s birth. If Bryan is generally familiar, Goldie (Georgia King) is a cliché in almost every way, a downtrodden, plucky single mother and waitress (in this she recalls all those films and TV shows I watched as a child, when I wondered why American single mothers were always waitresses). Goldie’s eight-year-old daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood), is, of course, lovely and precocious, as well as helpfully inspiring to her mother, who is making a change in her life after she catches her husband (Jayson Blair) cheating on her.
And so Goldie moves with Shania from Ohio to LA, where she answers an ad placed by Bryan and his partner, a sports-loving gynecologist named David (Justin Bartha). They’re looking for a surrogate mother, and she wants to pay for law school. The couple leads an affluent lifestyle with few apparent worries, channeling their frustrated paternal feelings into spoiling their puppy. Much like Goldie, Bryan and David are also stereotypes, namely, the privileged couple who can afford to buy whatever they want. At first, we’re inclined to suspect Bryan and David’s intentions, guessing they might be looking for another adorable object to spoil, a status symbol to dress in designer baby clothes. But their intentions are better than that, much like the show’s.
Bryan and David might seem obvious targets for satire of the sort Murphy, who cut his teeth on nip/tuck, created Glee, and still runs American Horror Story. But they’re not nearly so obvious as Goldie’s bigoted grandmother Jane (played with a raspy relish by Ellen Burstyn). A cartoonish confirmation of every liberal’s worst suspicions of conservatives, Jane a racist, sexist, homophobic gun-toting harridan in a skirt suit. Still, Jane can be very funny, whatever your politics. I could have done without her being given a rather neat justification for her prejudices, a convenient means to soften her general harshness. Jane’s past doesn’t automatically make her likeable, but it does make her more seem slightly less predictable.
At the same time, jokes concerning Bryan and David tend to be tender and domestic, as in their vague talk of dreams coming true and references to Mary Tyler Moore suggest the show isn’t quite cynical enough for political satire. Unless this gentleness is an elaborate set-up for a later joke, the lack of cynicism is at least a bit unusual in the current sitcom universe, conferring novelty and a genuine, rather than confected, sweetness.
Even if The New Normal‘s mix of mocking and moralizing is not so unusual, it has incited mild controversy. One Million Moms have declared a boycott of the show and a Mormon-owned Utah NBC affiliate has refused to air it. But at this point in time, such expressions of outrage are so expected that they only provide a minimal publicity, rather than any effective threat to a show’s existence. In the case of The New Normal, that threat will be more banal, having to do with ratings. It will depend on the new normal being less mundane and more unexpected.