Although I was predisposed to appreciate a sitcom about a happy, successful gay couple deciding to start a family, Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler’s The New Normal did not get off to an especially auspicious start. The pilot hurtled through the search for a suitable surrogate at breakneck speed, cramming a storyline that Rules of Engagement strung out for a full season (or longer) into a single 22 minute episode… leaving barely any time for jokes or character depth! And the sense of disorientation was only intensified by the jittery camera-work, and random, spasmodic zooms. It was all quite exhausting and off-putting… but the promise buried in the premise, and the quality of the performances kept me hanging in there. And I’m very glad I did, because once the series settled down a little, it evolved into one of the most heart-warming, tear-jerking rib-tickling soap-boxes you’re ever likely to see.
Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha are totally adorable as ‘Bryan’ and ‘David’, the aspiring baby-daddies with conflicting/complimentary views of manhood and how to raise their future child. Of the two, I probably favour Bryan, the more flamboyant and bitchy of the two, because he can also be incredibly sweet and self-deprecating in his own pseudo-superficial way. Their surrogate mother-to-be, ‘Goldie’, is played by Georgia King, a Scottish actress who I last saw playing snooty head-girl ‘Harriet’ in Wild Child. She’s using an American accent, and playing a much softer and fuzzier character here, so I didn’t recognise her at first… but she’s very winning and wonderfully expressive, so I’m definitely a fan now… and I’m glad they gave her character a sub-plot about setting up a small business, so she had more to do than simply sit around in a fat-suit and eat a lot of prop food! Of course, Goldie also has a daughter of her own to take care of… a quirky nine-year-old named ‘Shania’, played by Bebe Wood, who’s had small cameos in Veep and 30 Rock, and kinda reminds me of a younger, blonder Alyson Hannigan.
Goldie and Shania have a great dynamic, but sadly the arc involving a custody battle with the supposed patriarch of their family – estranged husband and father ‘Clay’ (Jayson Blair) – was upset by the pre-empting of a pivotal episode by news coverage of Hurricane Sandy. This meant that ep #1.7 (in production order) was pushed back several months to become ep #1.18 (in broadcast order), which really threw off the flow of the story.* The relationship between Goldie and the overbearing grandmother who raised her was also effected, making the elder’s eventual mellowing a little harder to swallow/follow first time around. When we first meet her, ‘Jane’ is a knee-jerk Republican, prone to making all sorts of unashamedly racist and homophobic comments. Frankly, the mean-spirited Jane sticks out like a sore, sour thumb amongst all the schmaltz, and it was really only Ellen Barkin’s natural charisma that saved her from being an irredeemably hateful buzzkill. Thankfully, once she starts bonding with Bryan’s equally-outspoken African-American assistant (NeNe Leakes), and dating a more metrosexual man (John Stamos), Jane reveals a softer, more understanding side, and a willingness to change her outdated views. I’m not sure how plausible or organic this character development was (because of the messed-up episode order), but it benefits the show immensely, and gives Barkin far more to play with performance-wise, so I’m all in favour of it.
As for the supporting cast: Jessica Lu appeared in the pilot as Clay’s insanely cute bit-on-the-side (boo!)… Sarah Buehler had a typically deadpan cameo in ep #1.3 as a ‘Women’s Services Worker’ dealing with Jane’s craziness… Anjini Azhar played a classmate/friend of Shania’s in several episodes… Cheri Oteri had a small but memorable role as a zealous “baby-proofer” in two episodes… and Jackie Hoffman and Mary Kay Place had recurring roles as the respective (but hardly respectful) mothers of Bryan and David. I didn’t really warm to Place’s passive-aggressive schtick… especially when she suggested that her son was being over-sensitive to her relentless sniping (and the writers seemed to agree with her, making him apologise for feeling hurt by the fact she did nothing but insult and undermine him!)… but Hoffman was on top form as a sexually-uninhibited free spirit. Love her.
Is it purely coincidental that the first season ended with a (ceremonial) guy-on-guy wedding, in the same week that so much attention is focussed on the subject of Gay Marriage in America? Probably… but let’s all cross our fingers that the show gets picked up for a second season, and that the positive vibes spread to the dusty old fogies who are preventing committed same-sex couples from enjoying the same basic rights and recognition as the straights!
* Obviously the hurricane itself was the real tragedy, and there’s no comparison between the loss of human life and a spoiled sitcom storyline… I’m simply noting why the narrative wrinkle occurred. ‘Kay?