“The New Normal” — trying to prove Rupert Everett right

The other day I took exception to a recent statement by Rupert Everett, famous homosexual, former Madonna bestie and current Hollywood has-been.  Not a big fan of same-sex parents is Rupert.  Not a big fan of Rupert am I.

Sadly, it seems another famous homosexual is doing his damnest to make gay dads look every bit as shallow and stereotypical as he can.  I refer, of course, to Ryan Murphy, creator of “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee” and the shiny new NBC offering “The New Normal.”  This series stars Andrew Rannells (who I really am rooting for) and Justin Bartha as a gay couple hoping to have a child, and focuses (thus far) on their relationship with the woman who has decided to be their surrogate mother.

I wish I liked this show.  But I do not like this show.

I should stipulate right off the bat that I have only seen (and now only intend to see) the first two episodes.  Maybe it will get better.  However, given that “Glee” started out as a charmingly off-kilter, must-see show and by the second season had become an unwatchable mess, I’m not confident.  And its sins are such that it will have a hard time overcoming them in my book.

First, the things I liked.  There was one moment in the first episode when the lead characters survey all the non-traditional families playing at a local park, and two of the mothers break the fourth wall and address the camera.  One is an older mother with triplets, and one is a little person whose daughter has normal stature.  Both happily describe their challenging path to motherhood/ road ahead with beautiful directness.  In that brief moment, those two women evinced a joyful embrace of humanity’s messy complications, and if the show had more such moments it would be much, much better.

Also, Justin Bartha is gorgeous.  (You may draw whatever conclusions you wish about what I’m signaling by saying that.)

So that’s what I liked.  What don’t I like?  Oh, so very much.

Let’s start with the non-gay characters.  Ellen Barkin’s Nana is just refried Sue Sylvester.  The quirky little girl is essentially Abigail Breslin’s charming oddball from “Little Miss Sunshine,” with the quirk factor cranked to 11.  (The actress playing her imbues her with enough winsome vulnerability to make her the only truly endearing character, however.)  And we’re meant to root for the jilted-wife-cum-prospective-surrogate’s dream of becoming a lawyer, despite the show’s telling us that dream is based on nothing more than her desire to wear power suits and spout important-sounding jargon like on television courtroom dramas.  (Really.  That’s why she wants to be a lawyer.  A regular Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that one.)  These aren’t characters, they’re live-action cartoons.

But none of that compares to how much I detest how the gay couple is depicted.  My beefs are two-fold:

1)  They are right out of butch-femme central casting.  We are first introduced to the Rannells character as he scans himself in the mirror at a high-end department store and wonders aloud if the outfit he’s trying on makes him look like Mary Tyler Moore (as desired).  He is precious and mincing and fey.  Bartha’s character, on the other hand, is Just One of the Guys.  He watches sports!  He plays sports!  His (uniformly straight) buddies complain that they live vicariously through his bachelor-dude existence and his having a kid will ruin it!  See, one of them is the “girl” in the relationship, and the other one is the “boy.”

ARGH!  Stupid!  Hackneyed!  Boring!

Let me tell you right now that if someone were to ask the Better Half and me which of us was the “girl” in the relationship and which was the “boy,” I would smile a tight little smile and resolve to speak with that person as close to never as possible.  I have known the occasional gay or lesbian couple through the years, and I am hard-pressed to think of a single one that conformed to this preposterously dichotomous cliche.  And yet here it is, in a show about gay people written by a gay guy.  Splendid.

2)  They are horribly superficial.  The Rannells character decides he wants to be a daddy in that same high-end department store when some adorable moppet smiles at him, and he introduces the idea to the Bartha character by showing him the cute baby clothes he wants to dress their child in.  Later, he tells the representative of the surrogacy service that he wants a “blond, thin baby that doesn’t cry.”  (That’s a paraphrase from memory, so may not be exactly right.  But it’s certainly damn close.)  (This dreadful little request is treated as an available choice.)  Later, looking through online videos of prospective egg donors, the couple reject one because she is too fat.  They eventually choose one because she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow.  (In one of the wittier moments of the show, the woman is played by Gwyneth Paltrow.)

These.  People.  Are.  Awful.

As it happens, the Critter is a remarkably cute child.  This is a matter of luck, not design.  While we didn’t have a surrogate and chose to become parents by way of adoption, the notion of choosing a birth mother or egg donor simply because she is pretty makes me want to puke.  Of the gay or lesbian couples I know who are parents, I can’t imagine a single one of them expressing any other sentiment than this.

And yet, now we have a major new show blithely depicting a couple of hopeful gay dads just itching for their pretty, pretty child.  How fishing lovely.

Why would a gay man foist these appalling, tired stereotypes on his audience?  My answer is that he is a mediocre writer at best, and mediocre writers traffic in tropes.  And “The New Normal” is tropes a-go-go.

If you’d like to see a hit television show that paints a humorous and bit over-the-top but nonetheless nuanced and human picture of a gay couple, and one that is going through a tough time trying for another adoption, I would refer you to “Modern Family.”  In an episode last season, Cam and Mitchell experienced a crushing setback as a potential adoption fell through.  Whoever wrote those scenes did a fantastic job of capturing how hard those very real situations can be.

Maybe “The New Normal” has the potential for emotional development along those lines.  We’ll see, I guess.  Or rather, someone else will have to see.  Myself, I think I’ve already seen enough.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. The Wife and I never had any interest in watching this show, yet I fell like we could have written basically the same review as you did here just by virtue of our feelings about the promos for the show. We also share your high opinion of Modern family.

    As for The New Normal, what seemed especially apparent to us from the promos was that it was going to just be a bunch of caricature, rather than characters, all presented under the guise of pretending to be ground breaking while blatantly knocking off Modern Family. There might have been a place for over the top caricatures of both gays and homophobic grandparents 10 or 15 years ago, but now it seems more regressive than groundbreaking. On top of that, under those circumstances it’s difficult to see how the show can even really be very funny.

    What makes Modern Family so great is that it is first and foremost a show about family, and it never loses sight of that purpose. Whatever their backstories, each character is principally defined by their role in the family, not by one or two caricatured traits.
    Ed O’Neil’s character is deeply uncomfortable with his son’s sexuality, definitely a bit racist, and otherwise something of a successful Al Bundy – but those traits are important only insofar as affect his role as the patriarch, Gloria’s husband, and Manny’s stepfather.

    The impression I got from the New Normal promos, and now from your review, is that it’s not so much a show about a “new normal” (and thus relatable) family so much as it’s a show about it’s characters’ abnormalities, and they’re hardly the first characters in tv history to have those exact abnrmalities so the jokes can’t take us by surprise anymore.

  2. I’ll give you credit for giving it a shot. Is “Partners” as bad as it looked in preview?

  3. Ugh. Triple ugh. *steers far clear*

    I still find Glee watchable (though 2nd season was by far my least favorite), but I’m pretty sure it’s because the cast are very good at their jobs, and because I find the “people who are a trope figuring out that they aren’t JUST that trope” trope fairly enjoyable in small doses while putting away laundry, when framed around a setting like high school that largely does consist of people getting over their stupid assumptions about themselves anyway (or, er, at least that’s what those years were like for me). Also, Glee feels like self-parody so much of the time that it’s hard to get mad at the ridiculousness… I feel like they’re being silly on purpose, even at its worst. (This may be a result or cause of liking the cast far better than the scripts.)

  4. I’m not giving Ryan Murphy a pass here (because I don’t like him for various reasons) but… I wonder if the boy/girl dynamic is something he actually sees in his circle of friends? He’s a Hollywood guy and from what I have heard, Hollywood people are always playing a role in their personal lives. Maybe Murphy’s social circle actually looks like this and it self-confirms when he creates characters that look like that?

    • Is is possible that gay men in Hollywood are this rare subculture wherein couples split into these hackneyed roles within their relationship? I… suppose? I’ve never hung out with Hollywood gays, so I guess I can’t rule that possibility out. I’ve known gays and lesbians from pretty much everywhere else in the country, though, so I’m pretty skeptical, and am unwilling to engage in such generous speculation on Murphy’s behalf.

      • It also assumes that heterosexual relationships ars starkly constructed as boy/girl, which certainly isn’t always true.

  5. I kind of want to see a “Ryan “Lochte” SNL review of this show. Can you rewrite this essay in that format? I’ll be too busy watching “Dr. Monkey.”

  6. Since I made it through about 2/3 of the pilot, you have defeated me handily.

    That said, one nice thing I will say about this show is that I thought the two gay leads had fairly good physical chemistry. They looked like a plausible couple (when they weren’t talking and saying idiotic things), which is one of the few major complaints I have about Modern Family. Cam and Mitchell are great characters and a lot of fun, but their relationship isn’t quite believable because it’s so antiseptic and sexless. I realize there are reasons for de-sexing the most prominent gay relationship on television, but it has always left me a little cold.

    • This is a fair criticism of “Modern Family.” Cam and Mitchell really don’t seem to “click” that way, I’ll grant. (Their bickering, banter and affection are all much more believable.)

    • I haven’t watched Modern Family but it amazes me that they still need to keep gay couples relatively ‘sexless’ on TV. That was something they had to to on ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ with the Willow/Tara relationship – if it was over-sexualized, the network feared flack from the Puritans (because, you know, lesbians), and showrunners feared flack from the feminists (for presenting lesbianism as exploitation/titillation, rather than as normal).

      As a result, there was no ‘spark’ (plus I never really found Tara all that interesting anyway, whether that was an acting or a writing problem or both I am not sure).

  7. On gay couples and how well or poorly they conform to a boy/girl relationship.

    I agree that most gay couples aren’t like that. But have you seriously never met one who is? I can think of a few couples off the top of my head where there’s very clearly a “boy” and a “girl”, even if they’re a slim minority of all gay couples.

    • I’ve never met one where things are neatly defined, no. Have I met some where one member has certain more feminine traits, and the other certain more masculine ones? Sure. But it’s never been entirely one way or the other.

      I am great at arranging flowers. I am horrible at decorating a room. I am hopeless at most home repairs, but do all our yard work and haul all our garbage to the dump when it needs to be done. I love awards shows, and also competitive running. Etc.

      All the gays and lesbians I know are similarly complex, and don’t fall neatly into “boy/girl” categories.

      • I’m an avid sports nut. I also do almost all the cooking and most of the cleaning. My wife loves and dotes on our two cats… I couldn’t care less about them. I probably wear more pink and purple than her and she more green than I. I’m more into shoes, though more so awesomely loud sneakers than dress shoes. I hate dressing up. She decorates the rooms and I try not to get in the way or break things. I’m much more social and outgoing; she is more of a homebody. She is a slob; I’m anal on a great number of things (she doesn’t even believe that there is a *RIGHT* place for plates to go!). She wants to garden more; I don’t even notice when whole new flower beds have been planted.

        Which of us is the boy and which of us is the girl?

        • she doesn’t even believe that there is a *RIGHT* place for plates to go!

          I’m showing this to Jason so he can see how good he has it with me.

          • When I learned I was an ENTJ via Myers-Briggs and read a “profile” on the type, this part was literally laugh-out-loud funny…

            “I make these little plans that really don’t have any importance to anyone else, and then feel compelled to carry them out.”

            You better believe I have a plan for those plates. And I can’t believe it isn’t important to you!

      • I only really know of one gay (M/M) couple that had distinct ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ roles, where the ‘boy’ was a ‘man’s man’ in demeanor and personality, and the ‘girl’ was overly efficacious and effeminate. It was an interesting dynamic to watch and interact with, to be sure.

        The only ‘downer’ was that ‘she’ kept raiding my closet for my shoes to wear when ‘she’ wanted to do a drag contest – and he’d go along as ‘her’ date.

        I should also mention that, when dressed, 90% of people did not realize that ‘she’ was in drag. So I don’t know if that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax (the whole drag thing) – but he self identified as a ‘twink’.

        All I know is he made off with a pair of really nice black pumps I had, the bitch.

  8. Thinking on it, that’s true of most of the straight couples I know, too.

    Talking about my boyfriend with this, we kinda came to the conclusion that most gay couples we know tend to have relatively similar levels of stereotypical masculine of feminine traits. Which makes sense–similar interests, and all that.

    • whoops, that was supposed to be a reply to Russell’s comment above.

  9. I haven’t seen the show. I’ve never seen anything done by Ryan Murphy, actually, so it’s possible I have no concept of how bad his work can be. With that said, allow me to speculate wildly:

    It could be that a desire to sexualize the television gay couple is part of the goal here. The sexual relationship that is least threatening to those straight people who might feel threatened or grossed out may be one where the couple conceptualizes themselves as a boy and a girl. Working off what Maribou said about the “people who are a trope figuring out that they aren’t JUST that trope” trope, the show may lure an audience that is OK with that kind of gay couple into watching the show, only to gradually reveal that these tropes aren’t the tropes they were looking for. If that’s the intention, it would be interesting to see if the writers are allowed to go through with it. If it’s not the intention, it almost certainly won’t survive its first season, for the reasons you and other commenters note.

    • If you want to dip your toes into Murphy’s oeuvre, the first season or two of Nip/Tuck is surprisingly good. It gets progressively crazier with each season though. I gave up on Glee because I realized I was pretty much watching it only for Jane Lynch, so the other 38 minutes felt like a waste of my time.

  10. I saw episode 2 last night and was surprised, then a little repulsed, then somewhat impressed by the way the show presents the political/ideological divide between conservatives and liberals. I couldn’t quite tell if the shows writers were parodying liberals or not, and with only that limited evidence, I’m taking an “accurate with some parody” view of things. Same the Barkin character’s presentation of conservative views – accurate with some parody. It seemed to me the writers wanted to attract both sides of the aisle here, so there is plenty of stuff that’s accurate being presented, and plenty of stuff that was over the top. Eg: that Barkin accuses the gay couple of liberal hypocrisy because they don’t have any black friends. Which turned out be correct. (And hilarity ensued, of course.)

  11. Haven’t seen the show and have no comment on it, but feel compelled to note that you’re misusing “tropes”. Maybe “clichés” would be a better word. “Tropes” just means, basically, the building blocks of a story. Pretty much everything you see in literature is a trope, and most tropes can be done either well or badly.

    To quote from TVTropes (only go the site if you’ve got a lot of spare time to waste), tropes are
    ” the tricks of the trade for writing fiction… devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”

  12. “[t]he notion of choosing a birth mother or egg donor simply because she is pretty makes me want to puke. Of the gay or lesbian couples I know who are parents, I can’t imagine a single one of them expressing any other sentiment than this.”

    Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher picked David Crosby! Point made!!!

    • What point? These are two women choosing a man. Women like “a crazy salad with their meat”. They are far less choosy on looks than men are. Men overwhelmingly go for beauty. There are sound evolutionary reasons why they should because symmetry, youth and beauty signify a fit and healthy breeder. Both sexes are attracted to beauty but women are designed by nature to be in it for the long haul and consider other factors. So do discerning men.

      Gay men are, as a group, notorious in their love for beauty. Read “Dancer from the Dance” one of the great books from gay culture. Drenched in love of male beauty. So the boys want to up their chances of breeding success using the tools we all have to pick and sort mates. Personally I would go for smart and pretty because (admit it) that is what we all hope our DNA will yield. But pretty is as good a place to start as any in their uterine/egg challenged predicament. It won’t be long until they can conceive an embryo between two men’s DNA and then, like the rest of us breeders, they will just have to accept whatever comes of their union.

      • What point? The idea that donors select based on looks. D Crosby is many things, but handsome is not one of them.

  13. Well, I’ve met a handful of same-sex couples, some socially, some professionally, who seem to superficially adhere to cognates of traditional gender roles. Now, one doesn’t always become friends with people one meets (alas). In those cases when I did get to know these folks as friends, yes, they all turned out to be more complex and nuanced than initial appearances seemed to indicate and the gender role dynamic was at some point set aside.

    Perhaps playing up the butch/femme dynamic might be a comfortable way for some couples of presenting themselves to that segment of the general population who they think aren’t going to bother getting to know them as actual people. Maybe. that’s just a guess and it probably isn’t a very good one. All I can report with verity is that I’ve had this social experience more than once.

  14. If it makes you feel any better, it seems to me like most TV dramas try to portray their characters as shallow, self-obsessed and generally dickish, (I had Gossip Girl as a guilty pleasure for a couple seasons) so gay people are more or less getting the same treatment as everyone else.

  15. I submit this as consolation doc: for the duration of the exitance of broadcast television heterosexual couples have suffered the indignity of a parade of shows that casts their relationships into an endless series of hackneyed cliches and tropes. Now we are confronted with television doing the same to homosexual couples.

    Congradulations brother, we’ve made it to the mainstream. We swam the river, climbed the mountain and fought our way past the angel with his sword of fire to discover that Eden is a Wal-Mart with pay parking.

    • You too can be ineffectual husbands, ditzy wives, and wacky neighbors. Maybe even elderlies inappropriately still interested in sex, Probably not precociously sarcastic kids, just yet.

        • I loved the expression on Larry’s face when she asks “Are you trying to turn this kid gay?”

          • What kills me is 1.). LD’s understatement that Hitler thought the Jews ‘a bit much’, and 2.) after the kid naively says ‘Jews, get a life!’ LD looks uncomfortable for a second, as like 3 different trains of thought go through his head and he internally debates the merits of explaining the Holocaust to an eight year old, before he just shakes his head and shuts it down with ‘yeah, OK’.

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