The iffy queer politics of Ryan Murphy’s ‘The New Normal’

If there’s anything at all to be said for Ryan Murphy, it’s that bless him, he tries. It’s easy to commend him for his commitment to putting queer characters on screen, particularly on broadcast networks. Aside from your Will & Graces, you end up with Glee, and a smattering of them elsewhere – Max on Happy Endings most successfully, as well as others on Murphy’s American Horror StoryThe LA Complex, Political Animals, Modern Family and less significant bit players in shows like New Girl.

The New Normal, Murphy’s new NBC sitcom starring Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells (the lone homosexual actor in the ensemble), Georgia King and Nene Leakes. The show is also haunted by the ghost of Ellen Barkin, who seems hellbent on making people hate Ellen Barkin.

The premise is simple: Rannells’ character Bryan is shopping when he exclaims that something he sees is very cute and that he must have one and TWIST it’s a baby. Eventually the show gets past the idea that he just wants a kid as some kind of perpetually-shitting accessory, but it’s a really terrible way to present the idea, and it just ends up saying, “Hey, this long-term gay couple wanting to adopt a child is THE NEW NORMALLLLLLLL so we’re gonna introduce the idea by predicating it entirely on the stereotype of gay superficiality!”

So they find a blandly pretty blonde girl to carry their child that Rannells – the stereotypical one – informs David (Bartha) that he wants interrupting David’s watching of SPORTS! Because gays can like sports omg!!! It’s the cheapest possible way to characterise David as the “straight” one, while Bryan gets to wear ugly capri pants and faggotstroke over the cuteness of babies. I’m not a huge fan of Modern Family, but at least in that show they went the less obvious route of making the more effeminate of the couple the one who’s a football fan.

So on one hand, the one who likes to shop has to be the feminine one, and the one who’s a successful doctor and sports fan gets to be responsible ‘man’ of the relationship. Yeah, this is totally the new normal – it’s so new that it sounds exactly like a stereotypical heterosexual relationship!

And then there’s Ellen Barkin’s character, who plays the grand(?)mother of Georgia King’s surrogate character, who is so bland I’ve already forgotten her name despite watching the pilot twice. The problem with Barkin’s character is that she’s a horrible, irredeemable racist homophobe. She shouts horrible insults at a perfectly lovely looking lesbian couple with a child, and she says very racist things to the Asian woman (played by Ming from Awkward. which is very weird) with whom the surrogate mother’s husband – or boyfriend, it’s never specified – is caught having sex. Which is problematic in itself, not racially, but because when King breaks up with her she immediately states how much wardrobe space she needs. WIMMIN, AM I RIGHT?!?!

Then after all this, we’re supposed to suddenly feel like Barkin’s heinous attitudes are justified because she caught her husband fellating a man once. That’s the big emotional moment where apparently we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, for applying a generalised hatred towards all gay people because her husband was a bit of a skeeze and she apparently stayed with him for another 10 years despite this. Sorry but, that’s not really how it works. Outward homophobia isn’t magically absolved by being cheated on with a man, sorry Ryan Murphy!

In the episode’s worst sequence, a bunch of actors break the fourth wall – for no discernible reason – to explain how crazy and weird families are nowadays! That midget had a kid and now it’s almost bigger than her! WACKY! One woman used to sleep around a lot! And they’re letting her have children?! These two people are deaf! They too can function as normal adults! Who’d have thought? This pretty much perfectly captures the tonal inconsistencies of the show. It’s so busy trying to be on-message but also funny but also edgy but also broad but also UGH.

I’m more than happy to be wrong, however. If the show simply slowed down and took some time to expand the characters beyond shopping-obsessed flamer (he appears to have a job, but we’re yet to discover what, and he does not seem particularly intelligent), the straight-laced “masculine” gay man to ground the effeminate one, the bigoted old lady, the attractive woman who had a kid at 15 and now wants a second chance at life, the ‘quirky’ child, and the sassy black assistant (played by a real housewife!). Like, that’s an alarming number of clichés and stereotypes. It’s not that difficult to come up with three-dimensional characters, it really isn’t. But it feels like Murphy isn’t trying.

Granted, this is only the pilot, but never once has a Ryan Murphy show actually improved as time has gone by – Glee, American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, even the much-forgotten Popular. He managed to turn Chris Colfer’s Kurt from an interestingly sympathetic character into another bland stereotype in Glee, and since he’s starting with bland stereotypes here, things can conceivably only get worse. And since about three episodes of plot have been run through in just the pilot, we’ll just have to sit back and watch the train hit the wall.