Before I begin, I should probably lay all my cards out on the table. As the by-line suggests, my name is Calhoun Kersten. John Calhoun Kersten, to be precise. Go ahead, Google me. I’m sure you’ll find some interesting stuff. Second, I’m gay. Granted, you probably don’t want me on your side in a “Who wore it best?” battle, but when it comes down to it, I sleep with other men. Now, what could all of this have to do with Ryan Murphy, infallible creator of Glee and martyr of Hollywood, and his new show? Allow me to explain.
As it has probably dawned on most of you, I’m not here to accuse The New Normal of destroying the moral fabric of our nation. I’ll leave that to the extremists in Salt Lake City. Does the religious Right really think that the gays would be responsible for destroying fabric? I thought (stereotypically, at least) that we loved fabric? No, The New Normal can be accused of many things, but to claim that the show promotes an unhealthy and unnatural lifestyle is ludicrous. If anything, Murphy works hard to create a very traditional picture. One husband works and watches football in his time off, while the other flits around and accessorizes. Seriously, if it weren’t for the two penises, we’d be talking about the kind of Susie Homemaker lifestyle that I imagine Ann Romney dreams of. While this is an uncomfortable level of stereotyping in and of itself, Murphy and co-creator Allison Adler take time to establish their motives as genuine and at least somewhat sincere. Unfortunately, in true Ryan Murphy fashion, once the gay characters are established, everyone else is left to the wayside.
The most common offense is to resort to character archetypes. For instance, the main female character, Goldie (Georgia King), is your typical, inexplicably resourceful and passionate single mother. Think Lorelai Gilmore with an intense dye job. The New Normal gives us a glimpse into her past, but only to provide hope for a new future. There’s no characterization or depth to her, except as a mother in a few scenes. Then there’s Jane, played by Ellen Barkin and the typical villain of Ryan Murphy’s work. Not only is she an open bigot, but she’s burdened with the greatest transgression one can commit in any Ryan Murphy show: she’s happy living in Ohio. Now, I grew up in Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati (ranked as one of the top 10 most conservative cities in the United States), and I still never met a character like Jane. Don’t get me wrong, maybe I was just looking in the wrong places, but Jane is supposed to be offensively archaic…and yet, we’re still supposed to laugh at her lines? Jane reads as an even more offensive Sue Sylvester, and nothing else. The pilot attempts to half-heartedly rationalize her ignorance, but The New Normal is fully insincere and disinterested in making Jane anything other than the villain.
Well, Mr. Murphy, I’m confused. Aren’t you the one who’s always saying that stereotyping is part of the problem? Yet stereotypes abound in The New Normal. Early on, the show tries to make the point that “abnormal is the new normal,” with testimonials from fictional “abnormal” couples. Moments later, a “little woman” explains that she and her husband had a child regardless of how tall their daughter would be. The camera cuts to reveal mother and daughter sitting in a Barbie convertible car before they drive away. Sure, it’s just a joke. But can you really exploit people’s differences for a quick laugh while trying to prove that they’re no different than two “normal-sized” parents? The New Normal tries to level the playing field by making a few jokes at the expense of its lead gay couple, but even then, most of these gags are at the expense of Bryan, the flamboyantly gay one. After all, he’s the easiest target.
However, unquestionably the most offensive contribution to The New Normal is NeNe Leakes’ Rocky. I’m not quite sure what Murphy’s obsession with Leakes’ inability to act is all about, but from looking at her dialogue, Murphy has some things to work through. Besides having minimal lines, most of them are stereotypical “mmmhmmm” sassy black woman lines. The ones that aren’t refer to her stealing from her boss. They’re clearly supposed to be funny, but they’re so painfully stereotypical that I could only watch in horror, especially in a scene where Rocky tells Jane off for being racist.
The New Normal isn’t offensive because of its glorification of “the gay agenda.” It’s offensive because “the gay agenda” is the only thing it cares about. Despite the fact that its main cast is made up of six principal players, only two of them are afforded any depth. Ryan Murphy knows how to write fully-formed characters, but it’s as if he’s so concerned with a single cause célèbre that he forgets about the other disenfranchised groups in America, even though his cast is largely female. As a gay man, I love the idea of having a voice (not so thrilled that Murphy has become it in entertainment, but one battle at a time), but if I’m given a voice at the expense of countless other groups, is that really a victory?