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TV Tonight: The New Normal

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Trae Patton/NBC

When I write my Test Pilot previews of new fall shows over the summer, I point out that they shouldn’t be taken as definitive reviews, because the pilots I see then can be reshot and recast before airing, or the show might evolve when and if the network sends out further episodes. That’s often true—but other times, as with tonight’s NBC debut The New Normal, the original pilot remains as is and the network sends critics no further episodes to judge from. So, with other deadlines pressing, I’m going to stand pat with what I wrote the first time I watched the episode:

The Show: The New Normal, NBC

The Premise: Bryan and David (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) are a gay couple in L.A. who want a baby. Goldie (Georgia King) is a single mom, just run off from the Midwest, who wants the fresh start that the payday of being a surrogate mom could give her. The complication: Goldie has been followed West by her grandmother (Ellen Barkin), who does not care for the arrangement or for the gays in general. (Yes, Ellen Barkin, at age 58, is playing a great-grandmother, according to the TV laws of young motherhood.) Created by Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler (a writer on Murphy’s Glee), the show aims to be a culture-clash comedy of alternative-family life.

First Impressions: God, is this pilot trying hard. Besides the title, the “times are changing” theme is underscored with pop-culture references aplenty and an especially conspicuous scene in which several untraditional parents (a little person, an elderly mom, a deaf couple) step up on a playground and tell their stories. There are a few acerbic insights into the world of high-income modern baby-seeking, but also a high miss-to-hit ratio in the jokes. And the Glee-isms abound: Barkin’s grandma is like a WASPier Sue Sylvester, rattling off un-PC comments machine-gun-style. Sunshiny, nervous Goldie reads a bit like a slightly less neurotic Emma. Nene Leakes (who plays Bryan’s assistant) is, well, Nene Leakes, and her ability to brassily declaim Murphy-esque dialogue is the best thing about this pilot in the same way that she’s often now the best thing on Glee. Mind you, I’m a fan of Glee—at least at its high points—but the adult relationships have never been the strong point of that show.

Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? Only in the hope that this will somehow have the opposite arc of most Ryan Murphy shows (which tend to start with an impressive pilot and fall into erratic crazytown). So far, The New Normal is the new ho-hum.

Often, I think, the best way to make an effective show about a larger social issue is to start with grounded, engaging characters and let the bigger meaning come from there: see, for instance, how Parks and Recreation builds on the relationships and dreams of its bureaucrats to tell stories about community and how people can do good (or screw up) through public institutions. The New Normal, on the other hand, has too many shrill, irritating characters to appreciate it as anything other than a statement about How Parenting Is Changing Now. And, frankly, given that gay parenting has been a major subject for three years on one of the most popular sitcoms on TV—Modern Family—it’s hard to buy The New Normal’s premise that it’s making us confront a shocking shift in society’s norms.

Really, the most potentially interesting dynamic in this story is not the gay adoption but the implied class issues—here, involving a very well-to-do couple whose lives are intersecting with the poor single mom they’ve hired as a surrogate. Maybe that could make for a more interesting story going forward, but for now this show is much more normal—read: mediocre—than it seems to think it is.