April 3, 2013



Over the course of the season, THE NEW NORMAL toned down its most disastrous miscalculation, which can be summarized in two words:  Ellen Barkin.  Not Barkin the very fine actress, of course, but the character she was called upon to play, Jane Forrest, the conservative Republican midwesterner grandmother who had raised Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King), the single mother of Shania (Bebe Wood) who had moved to Los Angeles and become a surrogate for gay couple David (Justin Bartha), a doctor, and Bryan (Andrew Rannells).  In the show, Bryan was a writer-producer who ran a show very much like Glee, and with Glee‘s real creator Ryan Murphy as co-creator and co-showrunner of The New Normal (with Glee Co-Executive Producer Ali Adler), it was obvious enough where the character of Jane had come from.  Jane was a revolting font of purportedly funny homophobic, racist and otherwise offensive statements, and clearly she was modeled after Glee‘s Sue Sylvester.  What Murphy and Adler (and NBC) seemed not to comprehend for weeks was that Sue is laughable because she’s ultimately powerless, a dragon who belches smoke but has no real fire, and often doesn’t even seem to mean the junk that’s coming out of her own mouth.  Making such an ugly character the heroine’s closest relative and giving her the power to hurt Goldie deeply curdled the joke, and watching New Normal became an extremely unpleasant experience.

By tonight’s season finale, written by Murphy and Adler and directed by Max Winkler, Jane had flipped 180 degrees.  Her character very much in the background now, she had a black best friend–Rocky (NeNe Leakes), herself a study in upward mobility as Bryan’s former assistant, now a producer on his show-within-the-show–as well as a thriving real estate career, a sex life, and only the wry remnants of her former hateful points of view.  At the end of the episode, she sat Goldie down and not only urged her to stay in LA with her blended family, but thanked her from the heart for changing all of their lives.

So… great, right?  A distasteful show becomes a positive one, happy endings for everyone?  The problem, as it turned out, was that once New Normal was stripped of its ambivalent attitude toward political incorrectness, it became as bland, sentimental and predictable a comedy as any on the air.  Even five years ago, a comedy centered on a gay couple who long to marry and have the same sitcom problems as anyone else might have seemed revolutionary, but life has changed quite a bit since then–just ask the Supreme Court–and now it’s just, well, dull, a gay version of what’s sometimes called “white people’s problems”.

The finale episode itself was largely taken up with Big Events, namely the wedding of Bryan and David (which in a final piece of wish-fulfillment was officiated by a Catholic priest who wasn’t wearing his collar that day) and the birth of their son via Goldie.  The show’s regular path was better reflected by the half-hour that preceded it, written by Co-Executive Producer Adam Barr and Supervising Producer Aaron Lee, and directed by Elodie Keene.  In that one, Bryan’s mother (guest star Mary Kay Place) showed up for the wedding, and the boys squabbled over what kind of cake would be served and other party details while trying to decide on the baby’s name.  Feelings were briefly hurt, until mom, like the Ghost of Wise Older Ladies In Sitcoms Past, advised them that the moment would come when they’d “just know” what the name should be.  And whaddaya know, only minutes later their eyes locked… and they just knew.

This would be crap in a sitcom about heterosexuals, and it doesn’t become anything else because the couple is gay.  Similarly, Bryan being depicted as a flamboyant, narcissistic yet lovable Bridezilla all season (about everything, not just his wedding) was as tiresome as the same character would be as a woman, and there wasn’t much originality in giving him a sassy black sidekick, either.  Cliches are cliches, whatever their sexuality.  Similarly familiar was Bartha’s David, the calmer (and less overtly gay) spouse.  The show insisted so repeatedly that Shania was irresistibly offbeat that she became off-putting, and it never figured out what to do with Goldie’s dumb-as-toast ex Clay (Jayson Blair), while Goldie herself didn’t develop beyond being an endlessly cheerful and supportive earth mother.  And more than all of this, the show just wasn’t funny.

On any other network, The New Normal would be headed to the ash-heap (last week’s rating was 1.3, and that was considerably better than it had done all winter without The Voice leading the night), but this is NBC, where none of the other comedies do much better–not to mention that the network likes being in business with Ryan Murphy.  So New Normal could find itself back on the schedule in the fall.  If it does, one hopes it’ll come up with some material that manages to be distinctive while avoiding the unpalatable.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."