NBC’s “The New Normal” Pilot Squanders Its Goodwill

It can be hard to really dislike a work of art or piece of media if it’s well-intentioned. But at some point, a viewer has to draw the line even if the overall message of the show is an uplifting one. Pushing a nice message is fine, but messages need to be handled with care. Ryan Murphy’s newest effort, The New Normal, may have sympathetic press behind it and a socially forward-thinking message at its forefront, but it squanders all that goodwill quickly in its pilot episode now available online.

The New Normal gained a lot of pre-air exposure when a Salt Lake City affiliate of NBC refused to air the program. Murphy seems to have a knack for creating shows that will garner a lot of media hype in a hurry–we saw a similar phenomenon with Glee at its peak, when coverage of the show was borderline inescapable. You can’t fault Ryan Murphy for knowing how to push people’s buttons and get people talking.

The New Normal on NBC. | Promotional photo courtesy of NBC

But like Glee and Murphy’s other current TV project, American Horror Story, The New Normal (in its pilot episode) relies on the extremely broad use of well-worn tropes and characters, resulting in an ultimately hollow exercise disguised as a progressive and even edgy show.

The pilot centers around gay couple David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells), who decide they want to have child via surrogate. Bartha and Rannells have a very convincing chemistry, but the pilot crams way too much plot into very little time, all to set up David and Bryan meeting their surrogate. This seems a lost opportunity to find some of the emotional honesty The New Normal seems to want to push across. The episode could have explored their dynamic as a couple and maybe, oh, actually dispelling some of those gay stereotypes that the show seems intent on getting past. We’re left at the end of the pilot with the two waiting to find out if their surrogate is pregnant, and we really don’t know either of them at all.

The surrogate in question is Goldie (Georgia King), a disillusioned single mom trying to hang on to her dreams and make some money for her daughter Shania (Bebe Wood). Tagging along with Goldie is her grandmother Jane (Ellen Barkin doing a strange Lucille Bluth impression), who serves as the crass grandma whose racism and homophobia are supposed to be amusing.

The jokes in general in the pilot are mostly stereotype-based humor (since all of Ryan Murphy’s characters usually fit into neat stereotypey boxes). There’s the wayward dreamer, the precocious young child, the crazy racist grandma, the really flamboyant gay man, the more subdued gay man, etc. The characters almost always say exactly what they are feeling and the plot chugs along at a crazy pace, cramming the entire process of a gay couple conceiving a baby into a single half-hour.

The New Normal is symptomatic of every criticism already written about Ryan Murphy’s TV shows. The man is a huge success because he writes very flashy stories and gets a lot of eyes on his shows (by say, using Top 40 songs), but the shows themselves are usually riddled with character inconsistency and jarring tonal fluctuation. This one is no different, no matter how much the show wants you to believe it’s changing the world.

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