Regular airtime: Wednesdays 8:30pm EST (FOX)
Producers: Dallah Ragow, Courtney B. Conte
Cast: John Goodman, Greg Pitts, Joely Fisher, Cody Kasch, Julia McIlvaine, Anita Gillette, Orson Bean, Mo Gaffney, Charles Rocket
by Rob Maitra
PopMatters TV Critic
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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
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
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.