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.