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The Bullshit Excuses for Behaving Badly Hall of Fame is a crowded place, overrun with sorry justifications ranging from the infamous Twinkie to the homework-eating dog. One currently active, not-yet-retired Bullshit Excuse destined for the Hall is the phrase “I’m just being honest,” as in, “Sorry I said all of those mean, horrible, nasty things about you. I’m just being honest.” Honesty and its reputation for being a good policy are so unimpeachable that even when a person is using one of the word’s lesser-known definitions — “hon·es·ty. 6. Pretext for behaving like an asshole” — it invariably gets its speaker out of trouble.
“I’m just being honest” is the unsaid retort hanging over Ryan Murphy’s new candy-colored, sour-tasting sitcom “The New Normal,” which premieres tonight on NBC, before moving to its regular night and time on Tuesdays. The show is ostensibly the uplifting story of two men trying to have a baby and the surrogate who helps them, but its characters spit out a near constant stream of bitchy, racist, homophobic, stereotypical comments, as if they were in some sort of race with the imagined bigots watching at home to get to the insult first. (Or, as if being a show with a P.C. premise made any other political incorrectness excusable.)
But as Murphy has demonstrated on “Glee,” there is no one in the world capable of cutting his characters down as brutally as he can (given all the time in the world, “Glee’s” audience could never have come up with as many insults to Will Schuster’s hair as Murphy’s writing staff has, or have dared to call Finn, the high school quarterback, fat, as Murphy did). And there are few he relishes writing for as much as the feverishly impolitic. The premise of “The New Normal” has already gotten it banned from NBC’s Salt Lake City affiliate, but it’s hard to imagine anyone saying anything nastier about the show’s characters than the show itself. On “The New Normal” the best defense has become offensive.
Andrew Rannells (“Book of Mormon,” “Girls”) and Justin Bartha (“The Hangover,” and because some things just shouldn’t be lived down, “Gigli”) star as Bryan and David, a well-heeled Los Angeles couple who decide they want to have a baby after Bryan falls in love with a pint-size sweater. Having found an appropriate egg donor — Gwyneth Paltrow, naturally — they seek out a surrogate, eventually landing on Goldie (Georgia King), a single mother with, yes, a heart of gold. She also has an adorable, bespectacled daughter named Shania (one assumes, yes, that is an homage to Ms. Twain) and a bigoted Nana Jane (played with total ball-busting commitment by Ellen Barkin), the sort of equal opportunity hater who derides gays, African-Americans, Asians and Jews. Nana is the Sue Sylvester of the piece, which is to say, the show’s id, the character shamelessly saying every horrible thought that runs through her mind.
Nana’s nastiness effectively tempers much of the sweetness of the show’s premise. “The New Normal” is about making a family, a baseline Hallmarkian undertaking (if not in the red states) that a show like “Modern Family” plays for laughs and awws. Murphy is after something edgier and more unhinged, but he would also like to keep those awws, which gives “The New Normal” the seesawing tone that’s as much a Murphy trademark as his sharp-edged, pop culture-current put-downs.
Bryan embodies both the sweetness and the bitchiness, as he’s called on to do much of the show’s emotional heavy lifting — he opens the series by making a video tearily explaining to his future child how much “you were desperately wanted” — before we learn he’s the sort of crass materialist who wants a baby because of its baby clothes. (“I want to have baby clothes, and a baby to wear them” is actually how he puts it.) “That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I must have it,” he says about a child during his epiphany moment about wanting to become a father. What kind of baby does he want? A “skinny blond child who doesn’t cry.” Whether this guy wants a kid or a fashion accessory changes moment to moment.
And what exactly is funny about that? “The New Normal” has about as many jokes as “Glee,” which competes in the comedy category at the Emmys but is not at all a classic comedy. Yes, “Glee” is campy and absurd, but its punch lines, as such, are almost always insults. The same is true on “The New Normal,” and it doesn’t have the song and dance numbers to balance out the bitterness.
When Nana tells an Asian woman who has just helped her use Twitter, “You people are so darn good at computers. And thanks for building the railroads,” it’s plausible that the joke is on the small-minded Nana. When she calls the guys “salami smokers,” again, she’s the jerk. But when she goes off on two butch lesbians standing with their newborn on a street corner, saying, “Those are just ugly men,” the joke — the “joke” — is landing squarely on the lesbians. To take a slightly less loaded example, when Bryan describes vaginas as “scary tarantulas,” the joke is most definitely on vaginas and the people who have them. (Fingers crossed he doesn’t have a girl.)
These sorts of lines can be momentarily bracing — this show is going there! — but they’re also unremittingly nasty. If Byran or Nana were to be confronted (and Nana is, by NeNe Leakes, in full stereotype-affirming sassy black lady mode) they would say they were “just being honest.” But they were also just being assholes, which is a pretty apt description of “The New Normal” itself.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.
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