Every showrunner in the TV business can make a good pitch for his or her show. That’s part of the development process where an idea becomes a script, and then a pilot, and then a series. If you can’t sell your show verbally, chances are it won’t exist, and I’ve sat through press conferences and interviews listening to producers enthusiastically, unapologetically sing the praises of absolute trash.
I’m not sure there’s a wider gap between pitch and reality than the one I continually find with Ryan Murphy, co-creator of “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” and now “The New Normal,” an NBC sitcom debuting Monday night at 10 before moving to a regular Tuesday at 9:30 timeslot the next night.
It’s not even so much a matter of quality as it is philosophy. I’ve heard complimentary descriptions of shows far worse than anything Murphy’s ever been associated with. But whenever I listen to Murphy discuss one of his series for the first time, he speaks in such a smart, nuanced manner that each one sounds like it should instantly become one of my favorites. And then when I watch each show for the first time, I’m reminded that Murphy the writer suffers from a kind of creative ADD where the only possible explanation for many of his show’s storytelling decisions is “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“The New Normal,” which Murphy created with Ali Adler from “Chuck” and “Glee,” tells the story of Bryan (Andrew Rannells from “The Book of Mormon”) and David (Justin Bartha from “The Hangover”), a well-to-do gay couple looking to have a baby with the help of single mom surrogate Goldie (Georgia King). At the show’s inaugural press conference, Murphy thoughtfully discussed Norman Lear – the all-time king of smart, button-pushing, socially-aware TV comedy – the emotional realities of each of his new characters, and even his own thoughts on surrogacy.
For a few moments, I began to wonder if I had been too dismissive of “The New Normal” as another Murphy show that goes for cheap laughs and shock value whenever possible in a naked (and, based on his last three shows, successful) bid for attention. But when I watched it again, it was exactly what I thought it was: a mix of broad jokes and big ideas desperately in search of a consistent tone. Certain individual moments work – individual moments have never been Murphy’s problem, and are the reason some of my friends still watch “Glee” even though they confess to hating 95% of the show by this point – but overall it’s a mess. If someone else had created this show – or if Murphy were going to step away and leave Adler in full control – I might ponder waiting for “The New Normal” to find itself. But Murphy shows are what they are, and only tend to get more schizophrenic, not less, as times goes by.
“The New Normal” opens with Bryan recording a video diary for their unborn baby, getting choked up as he ponders the idea that he or she might one day call him “daddy.” Rannells’ face is in tight close-up, the emotion on display very raw and genuine, and it’s a smart move to get viewers on his side as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the pilot then goes out of its way to undermine that feeling early and often in service of one ill-conceived joke after another. In the worst of these, we see Bryan shopping for pants when his attention is captured by something else in the men’s department.
“Ohmigod, that is the cutest thing I have ever seen!” he exclaims. “I must have it!”
He is, of course, looking at a baby in a stroller, and though Rannells’ face again melts, it means nothing, because the earlier line – not to mention a later one where he tells David, “I want us to have baby clothes – and a baby to wear them” – fits a whole bunch of homophobic assumptions about how gay men would only want children as some kind of stylish accessory.
And that’s unfortunately how “The New Normal” keeps operating: two parts Check Out How Daring We Can Be for every one part Please Emotionally Invest In What Is Happening. Mixing humor and sincerity is far from an impossibility – Lear did it regularly, and Adler did it with her “Chuck” scripts – but here they’re constantly at odds.
We’re asked to care about Goldie as she tries to break her family cycle of “babies having babies” so daughter Shania (Bebe Wood) can have a better future, but her scenes mainly play like a delivery system for Ellen Barkin to strut on-screen and do her best Sue Sylvester impression as Goldie’s racist, homophobic grandmother Jane, who in the pilot alone crudely insults both gay men and lesbians, Jews, Asians, African-Americans and even the disabled. To go back to Lear, even Archie Bunker was more subtle than this – and that was 40 years ago. Barkin’s there to stir up controversy and attention, little more.
I don’t think Murphy is being dishonest when he hypes up his shows. I think he genuinely believes that “Glee” is consistently about all the things he says it’s about, and that “The New Normal” really has a lot to say about the atypical state of the modern American family. But the execution in this case is too shrill and scattered to get any of his points – or jokes – across.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org