Sneak Peek – NBC’s The New Normal

Another day, another comedy pilot for the 2012 season has been released. The latest is The New Normal, another offering from NBC who seems to be banking on new comedies to pull the network out of their ratings quagmire. The network also seems to be aggressive in releasing their new comedies before their actual debut date; with their release of The New Normal, they have now made the pilots for three out of four of their debuting comedies available (go here for my review of Go On and Animal Practice).

Though The New Normal hasn’t even debuted yet, it garnered some early headlines when a Utah affiliate refused to air the show because they found the content of the show “inappropriate on several dimensions.” The sitcom is the latest from Ryan Murphy (Glee and American Horror Story) and focuses on the formation of a non-traditional family unit: a gay couple (David and Bryan) who want a child, their surrogate (Goldie) who is looking for a fresh start and a way to give her daughter a better life and the surrogate’s Archie Bunker-like grandmother (Ellen Barkin) who has plenty to say about the situation.

The pilot has a lot of ground to cover in 22 minutes – these people have to all be brought together and the basic concept of the show has to be established – so the character development is done in some pretty broad strokes. It’s actually fairly impressive that in 22 minutes the program is able to accomplish as much as it does without feeling totally rushed. They do a good job of setting the table for the rest of the series. Despite the economy, they  develop who these people are, at least generally. The only character that I didn’t feel that we got a good sense of was Bryan’s assistant Rocky (NeNe Leakes). She only had a few lines throughout the pilot and it was hard to get a definitive read on what she would bring to the series long term. I’m not particularly impressed with Leakes’ acting chops – she comes to TV by way of the reality shows The Real Housewives of Atlanta and The Apprentice – but Ryan Murphy obviously sees something I don’t as this is the second series where he has used her.

Ellen Barkin’s performance as Goldie’s grandmother Jane is going to be what people are most likely talking about after seeing the show as she has the most over the top role and says the most shocking things. Barkin is not an actress that I would normally think of when it comes to comedy, but she is a lot of fun to watch in this role. Her character Jane seems to have a lot in common with American Horror Story’s Constance (Jessica Lange) in her racism and her constant insults and after watching  Barkin’s performance at The Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne, she may have more in common with Lange than I would have anticipated. I’m not positive that both of them aren’t a little nuts. But Murphy apparently knows how to channel them properly as he uses both of them to good effect.

My only concern about Barkin’s character is that I think the shock value of someone saying awful and bigoted things can wear off pretty quickly. There has to be more to her character than that and she her more outlandish tendencies have to be used sparingly or people will tire of her character and her foolishness pretty quickly. I thought she was most effective as a character when she wasn’t saying ignorant things; I particularly liked her interaction with Goldie’s husband. The same critique of a little goes a long way could be directed to Goldie’s daughter Shania. Precocious kids on TV are a dime a dozen. The trick is to find the best way to utilize them or develop their character so there is more to them than one liners.

The rest of the cast is very good as well. I particularly liked the dynamic between David and Bryan. They have a very sweet relationship and are very likable. These characters also reinforce the notion that not all gay men are the same, a concept that Hollywood does not always do the best job with. Not all gay men love show tunes or shopping. David and Bryan are two very different people, which I think only adds to the effectiveness of their characters. Goldie (Georgia King) is also a character that seems like someone that viewers would want to spend time with and root for. Though she doesn’t have her life together, she is trying and people like an underdog.

I can’t say that I laughed a lot during the pilot, but I did chuckle a few times. With so much to establish in such a short amount of time, there wasn’t a lot of time for many overt jokes. The comedy derives a lot from the situation and the outrageousness of Barkin’s character. I see a lot of potential for humor down the road; it will just depend on how the characters are utilized and how the story plays out. I could see the show veering a little too much toward the sappy and sweet based on the pilot. I hope they find the right balance – a show can be positive without being so saccharine that you need to brush your teeth after watching. More of Barkin’s biting comments isn’t the answer either. They just need to make sure they find the right equilibrium.

Despite the fact I generally enjoyed The New Normal, I don’t think I’ll be a regular viewer. I just don’t 100% trust Ryan Murphy and his showrunning. I really enjoyed the pilot to Glee, but he quickly made that a show that I loved to a show that I loathed. He has a tendency to manipulate characters to fit whatever story he wants to tell, rather than being loyal to the traits and characteristics that the viewer has come to know. I watch and enjoy American Horror Story, but I can’t confidently say that is even a good show; it is so batshit crazy and discombobulating that by the time you even have time to think about plot holes and character changes, the show is already over. The show is so disorienting that it sometimes takes me a while to even process what has happened, let alone critique it. It’s a great water cooler show in the “Can you believe I just saw that?” variety, but I’m not sure there is all that much more to it. So my trust level in Ryan Murphy is really low and I’m not sure that I want to roll the dice on a series that he could very easily screw up. The pilot definitely had promise, but being slightly familiar with Murphy’s foibles also makes it clear that there are plenty of opportunities for him to indulge in his worst tendencies.

That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if The New Normal turned out to be very popular. But with my track record with Murphy and my overcrowded TV schedule, I don’t know that I am willing to gamble my limited time on it. If it winds up being a monster hit, I’ll catch up on it at a later date (perhaps Summer Viewing Project 2013). There is absolutely potential for this show, but when it comes to Murphy productions, I am once bitten, twice shy. Worst case scenario, he proves me wrong and I have some TV to catch up on.

The pilot for The New Normal is available on Hulu.com. The New Normal debuts on Tuesday September 11th at 9:30 pm (ET).