The New Normal‘s premiere episode is hands down one of the best put together pilots to grace my iPhone screen in quite some time.
With a minimum of fuss, and a maximum of laughs almost from the word go, this new sitcom from Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) and Ali Adler (Chuck, No Ordinary Family) loudly and proudly declares it intentions to be sassy, in your face, and damn near hilarious while it does it.
And it has a character all its own pretty much straight out of the creative womb, leaping over the awkward adolescent finding-its-way stage that many pilots go through, and arriving, virtually fully formed, on our viewing doorstep. (All these allusions to childbirth and growing up will make sense in good time, my friends.)
All of which that means that the characters we will hopefully come to know and love, given we will be likely be spending a good 22 or so episodes with them, are given the unusual chance to not only make themselves known to us, but to move beyond the handshakes and air kisses of introductions to the serious getting-to-know-you stuff before the credits have even hinted at rolling.
That is a remarkable achievement and owes a lot of the talent and skill of the producers of the show who after all, have cut their teeth on some pretty successful shows.
In a sign of the slick but emotionally rich show that is to come, the episode opens with a tearful Bryan Collins (Andrew Rannells) recording a piece to video welcoming his as-yet-unborn child to the world.
What could have been a mawkishly sentimental moment is lifted well above the nauseating cornfields of Hallmark by a reasonably nuanced performance by Rannells, one half of a gay couple with handsome doctor David Murray (Justin Bartha), who neatly rises above the flippancy of much of his interaction with the world, and imbues the video with the sort of authentic longing familiar to anyone standing on the verge of parenthood.
It helps that his assistant Rocky (NeNe Leakes, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Glee), who provides the sass for the show in industrial-sized quantities, and emerges quickly as one of its greatest attractions, starts off proceedings with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it funny video tutorial, and a description of herself as “half giraffe, half drag queen honey”.
It’s pretty much this pivotal opening scene that sets the tone for the rest of the show, making it clear that The New Normal will be a winning mix of sass and silliness, and a realistic (well as realistic as a sitcom can get in 22 minutes) look at the changing face of families in today’s society, and the ripples this causes in the wider community, particularly among those of a more conservative bent.
It does this by relying on a comic standard – the widespread use of stereotypes – something it has been criticised for by some in the gay community who feel it is misrepresenting the truth about gay life in its pursuit of laughs.
But I think the criticism is missing the point.
For a start, as a gay man myself, I am more than familiar with gay couples who look and act enough like flamboyant Bryan and more measured David to make them believable. My friends are real people, they act very much like these two characters and are clear evidence that stereotypes flourish for the simply reason that capture a certain level of authenticity.
Of course no one is exactly like the male couple in The New Normal who are after all exaggerations of sorts, but the fact is Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler have not picked these two gay templates out of the ether.
More importantly though for the purposes of the show, use of these stereotypes, along with that of the sassy capable executive assistant (Rocky) and the opinionated conservative older woman (Jane Forrest played by Ellen Barkin) comes leavened with a refreshing dose of well rounded characterisation, something missing from shows that cling to unreconstructed stereotypes like they’re going out of fashion (which they are).
For instance Bryan, camp and flamboyant though he may be, is revealed as a thoughtful caring guy who though he is more than enamoured of culottes and shopping than many men his age, cares deeply about his partner, his life, and being a dad.
And the other central character in the show, Goldie (Georgia King), mother to Shania (Bebe Wood) and granddaughter to Jane, who acts as the eventual surrogate for the couple, is not simply another woman trapped in a life she doesn’t want and in a marriage that falls apart rather spectacularly when she least expects it.
She is presented as a woman who believes passionately is building a better life for her daughter, who embarks on the surrogacy not simply because she needs the money but also because she believes strongly in the idea, even in the face of her grandmother’s bigotry, that “families are families, and love is love”.
And even Jane, who refers to Bryan and David as “salami smokers”, to their shock, is given a backstory that explains her dogged resistance to her granddaughter carrying the future child of two gay men, even as it doesn’t excuse it.
In short, The New Normal not only dips its toes in the stereotype pool (because let’s face it they are funny) but throws itself wholeheartedly into it with a body slap of massive proportions, but has the good sense to go beyond the obvious and ground these people as real human beings who have a reason for doing what they do.
And that I think will be its greatest strength.
Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how original your premise is, or witty the dialogue may be, or how funny your many jokes may be, if you don’t have characters that make sense and hence matter to people, your sitcom will have a very short life span indeed.
Adding to the The New Normal’s chances of enjoying a long and happy life on television is that sets out to say something meaningful and considered about the changes in families and societies, and succeeds admirably without being heavy-handed, and treads a nuanced, perfectly balanced line between laugh-out-loud funny and real sentiment that anyone with a beating heart will recognise.
That it manages to pack all this into a pilot episode, without once looking bloated or ill-disciplined, is the best sign yet that this is one show of the current crop that will likely go the distance, reminding us all in the process that normal is a very elastic term indeed.