The New Normal debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern. It moves to its regular timeslot—9:30 p.m. Eastern—on Tuesday.
The New Normal is the most well-meaning terrible new show of the year, a series that seems driven at times by a genuine desire to examine how the American family unit has morphed and mutated into all sorts of different permutations and driven at other times by the desire to see as many people screaming onscreen at once as possible. This being a show hailing from Ryan Murphy—the man behind Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story—it’s probably not hard to guess which side wins out all too often. The New Normal is at once a series that wants to be a gentle public service announcement about how beautiful non-traditional families can be and a series that seems to be issuing a grave warning about what will happen if the average gay man becomes a parent. By aiming to be both a heartwarming family comedy and an envelope-pushing satire, the show succeeds at neither, and it ends up sending all sorts of messages it would never dream of sending, wholly unintentionally.
At The New Normal’s center are David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells), a gay couple in a long-term relationship who decide, seemingly on a whim, to have a child. The pilot so flattens out the process of how two gay men would go about finding a surrogate, choosing which of the two to be the biological dad, and getting that surrogate pregnant (while still making room for wholly unnecessary “twists”) that it sometimes seems as if the series is suggesting that the two are only having a baby because Bryan thinks one would be cute perched on his arm. The first time either broaches the topic is after Bryan sees a cute baby at a store while shopping for clothes and seems to think the baby is just the right thing to complete his outfit. That they immediately decide to try to get pregnant is one thing—that’s just TV shorthand—that they’re already hooked up with a surrogate and waiting on news by the end of the pilot is another. It leaves no room for anything to breathe.
The surrogate is Goldie (Georgia King), a young mother from Ohio who saw her dreams of becoming a lawyer disappear when she gave birth to her daughter Shania (Bebe Wood) as a teenager and is now grasping at straws to make those dreams reappear. The “straws” come in the form of a no-good husband who cheats on her. The ballast threatening to drag her back down to Earth is her grandmother Jane (Ellen Barkin), who spends most of the episode launching into homophobic and racist invective that’s supposed to be hilarious but instead feels tired. Jane, of course, follows Goldie and Shania from Ohio to Los Angeles, where Goldie becomes David and Bryan’s surrogate. The pilot tries to create some drama out of the idea of whether David and Bryan might go with some other surrogate, but the choice of framing structure—a video Bryan is making to tell his future child the story of his or her backstory—renders all of this particularly pointless.
The New Normal isn’t a complete failure. There are pleasures to be had here, mostly from the cast. Rannells and Bartha, in particular, are absolutely fantastic at conveying the longing Bryan and David have for a child (at least once the script settles down and moves past the idea that Bryan might just be thinking of a baby as some sort of handbag). The scenes where either tears up with joy, or where the two excitedly await Goldie’s news, are among the episode’s best, and that’s simply because of Rannells and Bartha. Goldie is a bit more scattershot of a character—Murphy and his co-creator Ali Adler can never seem to decide if they want to mock the woman or hold her up as an example of how to pick yourself up by your bootstraps—but at least has a consistent throughline in the hands of the solid King. She and Wood make a fun duo, and the scenes with just the two of them are often mildly amusing, even if Shania falls too easily into precocious child clichés.
Really, that’s the problem with the whole pilot. Those who’ve seen a Murphy production before won’t be surprised to learn that every single character here is reduced to an easily defined stereotype. Bryan is the archetypal gay man, while David is the gay guy who’s still into masculine pursuits, like sports. Goldie is such a go-getter that Murphy and Adler give her a clunky speech in which she explains what a go-getter she is, while Jane is your standard racist old coot, a type that Murphy is far too enamored of and one that he rarely writes well. (A late-episode moment where we’re meant to understand the roots of Jane’s homophobia falls apart disastrously because no one—from Murphy and Adler on down—is sure whether or not to play it as farce.) Also, NeNe Leakes is here to yell things, because Murphy likes it when she yells things. (Again, that late-episode scene eventually turns into everyone shouting for no particular reason, because that makes things more exciting.) Hell, even Gwyneth Paltrow turns up, because Ryan Murphy knows Gwyneth Paltrow.
Murphy’s particular brand of preposterousness can work in certain genres. Glee was fun for a while because the show had an inherent charm, and stereotypical characters can go a surprisingly long way within a musical-comedy environment. Similarly, American Horror Story had its moments as it closed out its first season, mostly stemming from the sheer insanity of the plotting. When Murphy hits a groove and essentially starts transcribing his particular brand of attention deficit disorder as if directly from the gods, there are few other writers on TV who can match his level of verve and unpredictability. He’s not a tremendously good writer—though Adler has been on shows as varied as Chuck, No Ordinary Family, and Glee—but he can hit a certain series of notes nobody else can. He’s definitely got a voice, like it or hate it.
The problem, then, is that Murphy’s voice is essentially geared toward certain genres, and low-key family comedy is not one of them. Murphy is fond of bold, declarative statements, not bits and pieces of suggestions that are redolent with subtext. In one of the episode’s worst moments, David and Bryan sit at a playground, thinking about whether they’re ready to be fathers, and everything abruptly cuts into a montage where various characters explain exactly how they fit the “new normal”—which is abnormal, as it turns out—type. There’s nothing left to the imagination here. (It’s even scored to “Baby Elephant Walk,” so it seems especially kooky.) That fear of leaving anything to chance extends to the episode as a whole. Everybody says exactly what they’re feeling and thinking—preferably in as loud a volume as possible. Murphy and Adler take subtext out behind the back of the whole enterprise and club it to death with a baseball bat.
As if to put a final nail in the show’s coffin, the pilot’s not even funny. Normally, Murphy and Adler can be counted on for a handful of jokes so well-constructed or so weirdly transgressive that they provoke at least a smile. That’s simply not the case here. The jokes keep piling up, but the laughs are nonexistent. There are good elements here and there in The New Normal. If it were from any other producer, there might be enough here to suggest a “wait and see” attitude, one that saw how awful the pilot was but allowed the producers time to work with the talented cast. Instead, this show comes from Murphy, and when you’ve got a Ryan Murphy show that’s too broad, too loud, too enamored of its own tweaks at the status quo, and too terrified of anything that isn’t delivered with 15 exclamation marks, it’s easy to expect things will only be downhill from here. A low-key family comedy about two gay parents and their surrogate could have been amazing, but it would have required a deft touch. Murphy seems to have started with, “How can we get banned by the Salt Lake City NBC affiliate?” and gone from there.