Monday, September 10, 2012

Television review: 'The New Normal' is a sunny take on family - Los Angeles Times

"The New Normal," which premieres Tuesday on NBC, concerns Bryan and David (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha), a gay couple who want a baby; Goldie (Georgia King), the young woman they hire as a surrogate mother; Goldie's quirky-precocious 8-year-old daughter, Shania (the invaluable Bebe Wood); and her problematic grandmother, Jane (Ellen Barkin).

I'm no fan of the works of its well-known co-creator, Ryan Murphy, who has "Nip/Tuck," "Glee" and "American Horror Story" in his portfolio. They can be oddly nasty about human beings and human bodies. (Women, especially, do not fare well.) I understand that in art it's his characters talking, but the result can be something of a freak show, nonetheless.

Though not free of such passages â€" I don't know how to take a line like, "I thought your mother was a fibroid tumor; by the time I figured it out she had a face and I was screwed," other than not to laugh at it â€" "The New Normal" is a generally sunnier, sweeter proposition. To start, it's about people who (mostly) like one another working together toward a happy end. (Co-creator Ali Adler is herself the lesbian mother of two.) Much about the pilot felt flat or programmatic to me, but much was likable as well, especially the nonchalant tenderness between the male leads. And the cast is good.

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Bryan is what we might call the straight gay guy in this picture (likes football, drinks beer), and David, the smarter, deeper, less outwardly emotional partner, is all about surfaces: "I want us to have baby clothes and a baby to wear them" is the epiphany that kick-starts the series.

Goldie is a refugee from Ohio and a bad marriage who flees with her daughter to L.A., where she finds Bryan and David and where Grandma Jane catches up with them. Goldie dreams of being a lawyer, "like Julianna Margulies on 'The Good Wife,' " though Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde" is the closer match. I wasn't always sure I was meant to take her as smart, but King has a natural glow, and it's easy to credit her pluck and goodness.

In her conservative pearls and "Callista Gingrich hairdo," Barkin's Jane is by contrast cramped and disagreeable, a bigot whose distastes are catholic, though she imagines herself to be fair. Like Sue Sylvester on "Glee," she is an organ of say-anything outrageousness, though not as smart (and, though I like Barkin, not especially funny). But â€" as when little Shania improbably says, "No one plans to have a kid when they're 15 unless they're in an extremist Christian cult" â€" she also represents a kind of defensive strike against the show's natural enemies.

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Indeed, they have already turned out: One Million Moms, which earlier had failed to separate J.C. Penney Co. from Ellen DeGeneres, has made its tinny voice heard; NBC's Salt Lake City affiliate has declined to carry the show.

"Abnormal is the new normal," David declares, looking out upon a park filled with different sorts of families. But it isn't everywhere.

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