Getting Back to Normal
In a nation where the man who will be president is afraid to say the word “gay” on national television, it might come as a surprise that one of its biggest television stars is playing a gay man on television. Is the nation ready to see John Goodman play a homosexual, middle-aged man on the new Fox series, Normal, Ohio? Are we soon going to see condom commercials on television with Goodman saying, “I’m not a gay man, but I play one on TV”?
Since there is no “Normal, Ohio,” we might assume that it is—to some extent—representative of this imagined “nation,” at least for the show’s creators. Perhaps, from Hollywood, Ohio looks like stereotypical Middle America, filled with people whose gay children run away to New York City and L.A. (many of whom end up working in television). Just as the characters in the show must deal with homosexuality, so must its viewers. The unspoken but obvious question at the center of the show is this: can homosexuals exist in Middle America?
The show asks other, related questions as well, challenging various “norms,” not only norms of sexuality, but also stereotypes of homosexuality. William “Butch” Gamble’s presence, appearance, and demeanor defies cliches that you might see in, say, Will and Grace. As his nickname suggests, Butch embodies the characteristics of a typical, middle-class heterosexual man. He drinks beer and eats pizza as he yells at a football game on television. This is not a standard U.S. media image of gayness—these still tend toward the easy-to-spot, for instance, effeminate, deceptive, and well-groomed (like The Maltese Falcon‘s Joel Cairo), or sexually promiscuous, vain, and superficial (like characters on Showtime’s Queer as Folk, which has been translated from the British). Normal, Ohio counters such preconceived notions by presenting a stereotypically heterosexual character who happens to be gay.
Still, the show is not free of cliches. Intermixed with Butch’s “straight” behavior are pinches of stereotypical homosexuality: he sings, “Ding, ding, ding, goes the trolley,” as he pours his morning coffee, helps color his sister’s hair, makes references to The Wizard of Oz, and at times moves his body in a “You go, girl!” manner. These comic idiosyncrasies appear to contradict Butch’s “normal” male behavior, and consequently draw homophobic quips from the show’s other characters, mainly members of Butch’s family. And viewers, judging by the laugh track, are supposed to laugh at Butch’s “gay” behavior, then laugh even harder when others ridicule his behavior.
Imagine the fun of hearing Butch’s father Bill (Orson Bean) recall the moment when Butch “ran off to La La Land to shack up with cute boys,” abandoning his wife and son Charlie (Greg Pitts). It’s hardly “progressive,” but in this instance and others, the series considers—too briefly—the various effects of the coming out process on a gay person’s family and friends. Where Butch’s mother, Joan (Anita Gillette), blames herself and the choices she made in raising her son, Bill resents his son’s choices. Charlie is angry that Butch left, but like his Aunt Pamela (Joely Fisher) and her kids, Kimberly (Julia McIlvaine) and Robbie (Cody Kasch), he’s not distressed by his father’s sexual orientation. By shortcutting through these inevitably complicated relationships, the show overlooks the violence, both symbolic and physical, that is part of coming out.
Because of its lack of insight, the show is neither a spoof of homophobic America, nor even a comic guide to dealing with homophobia. The show dances around the complicated issues it raises and fails to capture the family’s many tensions, both around and beyond coming to terms with the gay son. Consequently, the show seems insincere and its jokes empty. As I watched a couple of episodes for a second and third time, I realized that the dialogue is occasionally funny, but works better when taken out of the context of its specific narrative.
Goodman takes a gamble with this role: if the show deals with homosexuality overtly and respectfully, it may be rejected by mainstream viewers (see Ellen), but if it only incorporates “gay themes” in order to garner cheap and easy laughs, its humor becomes stale. However, if the show uses these themes in order to explore humorously the complex U.S. middle class experience, where humans construct meaning and stories out of the fragments that make up their lives, then it will not only be successful, but also a truly unconventional and significant series. In this context, Normal, Ohio can be compared to Goodman’s first prime time success, when he played Dan Conner on Roseanne. The difference is that Roseanne dealt with issues facing working-class America in a serious yet also humorous manner. And at times, Normal, Ohio recalls All in the Family, with its strained family relationships and tensions between old and new values. But again, All in the Family dealt with prominent issues of the 1970s, whereas Normal, Ohio avoids the issues that define its own era. It appears that the utopian fantasy in Normal, Ohio is that homosexuals are harmless to an established social order and will eventually assimilate into mainstream culture: they’ll become as unthreatening as Butch, for instance. The program makes this fantasy seem possible by encouraging the audience not to reflect on more difficult questions. It does this in part by happening quickly. The contrived lines come rapidly, and so do the retorts. In the second episode, the fundamental conflict of the first—Butch’s relationship with Charlie, which did not seem settled at the end of the first episode—suddenly appears somewhat resolved. Now father and son interact as if the first episode’s discord never happened.
Narrowly focused, much of the plot and character development revolve around sexual activities and identities. Pamela, for instance, has been searching desperately for a male companion and has been unsuccessful thus far in her quest. Her children, Kimberly and Robbie, are dealing with their own desires and orientations. And in the second episode, Butch’s parents learn of secret affairs that each of them had during the Korean War. In all of these plot lines, sexual norms might be understood as ambiguous, but they are also rendered banal. It remains to be seen whether the producers and writers will decide if they want a show that contends seriously with social and political issues, or one that presents those issues in shallow ways.
As it turns out, Normal, Ohio has been cancelled. This suggests that “Middle America” remains a fiction, at least for the people who see it as a demographic.