Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha

My Two Dads was never like this. Which is partly the point of NBC's The New Normal, a biting yet sweet-at-heart sitcom that bucks current network comedy trends by actually being about something — in this case, a hot-button social issue so polarizing to some that at least one affiliate (in Salt Lake City) opted not to air the show.

"Abnormal is the new normal," declares campy fashion plate Bryan (Andrew Rannells of Broadway's The Book of Mormon) to his more grounded and laid-back partner David (Justin Bartha of the Hangover movies) as they take baby steps toward starting a family of their own. This desire, which tends to send these spiky characters into gooey sentimental meltdowns, brings them in contact with winsome single-mom Goldie (Georgia King), who'll be their surrogate for hire. Though not without interference from her bigoted dragon-lady granny "Nana," played with profane ferocity by an uproariously scene-stealing Ellen Barkin.

As you'd expect from co-creator Ryan Murphy (Glee), the tone can wobble from sappy to flamboyantly snarky, but there's a real emotional undercurrent that makes Normal a good fit with Matthew Perry's new sitcom Go On, which casts the Friends alum as a smart-alecky widower who joins a wacky support group. (Go On got a sneak-peek premiere during the Summer Olympics; NBC is giving The New Normal pilot a one-night-early premiere tonight at 10/9c, taking advantage of what's expected to be a strong lead-in with the two-hour premiere of The Voice. The Go On pilot will be replayed at 10:30/9:30c. Both comedies will air in their regular time period with new episodes Tuesday in the 9/8c hour.)

NBC's new Tuesday comedy hour is something of a risk. Not just for the edgy-ish content, but because they're being thrust into the fall season's only three-way sitcom showdown — against Fox's New Girl and The Mindy Project (starting Sept. 25) and ABC's transplanted Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (new episodes start in October). This tough competition explains why NBC is launching these shows early. There's no safety net on TV anymore, and that's the new reality.

Speaking of tough competition, how about NBC's last-minute call to expand the launch of The Voice over three nights in its first week, forcing a head-to-head collision on Wednesday (8/7c) with the first hour of The X Factor. Part of me gets vicarious pleasure in watching this ruthless game of TV chicken — when push comes to shove, as it just has, you have to give the edge to The Voice's "blind auditions" round for pure entertainment value. Another part of me wonders if this sort of cannibalization might hasten the end of the current over-saturation of singing competitions. By Thursday night, we'll have witnessed seven hours of this sort of programming this week (not counting the three hours it will take between Wednesday and Thursday to crown an America's Got Talent winner — which thankfully won't be a singer this year). Even if the singing is good, after a while you can't help but want to cover your ears.

Want more TV news and reviews? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!

SUGAR AND SPICE:
It's too bad Jack the Ripper never met Sugar, the sensuous but tough-minded Victorian-era prostitute whose iron will and inner rage make her a formidable match for any man in those sexually and socially repressive times. The passionate heroine of The Crimson Petal and the White, a too-racy-for-Masterpiece BBC miniseries adaptation of Michel Faber's mesmerizing best-seller, Sugar rises above but never forgets her squalid past, nursing homicidal fantasies while writing a secret "book of hate" targeting every "pompous trembling worm" of the male species. (The miniseries premieres Monday and Tuesday at 9/8c on Encore.)

The role is a sensational showcase for The Hour's Romola Garai, in a fearless display of intelligence and brazen drive (matched by Gillian Anderson as her craven madam) as Sugar takes full advantage of the latest man to fall for her charms. William Rackham (a very brave Chris O'Dowd) is her wealthy prey, also her lusty and needy benefactor, turning her from fallen to kept woman but no less a prisoner of circumstance. Their turbulent relationship, which eventually involves Rackham's tragically deranged wife and neglected daughter, can be read as a comment on the plight of women in a less enlightened age. But it's also a pungent, harrowing and thoroughly captivating entertainment, a welcome reminder of the power of the classic miniseries, which the networks have shunned for far too long.

Petal launches Encore's weekly "Big Miniseries Showcase" franchise, which reaches back to '80s and '90s landmarks including Shogun (Sept. 17), Lonesome Dove (Nov. 19) and The Thorn Birds (Dec. 10). Given the recent blockbuster success of History's Hatfields & McCoys, you'd think everyone would be scrambling to reinvent the form and create this sort of big-tent "event" TV again. There's clearly an appetite for it. What are they waiting for?

TALKING THE TALK: Will Katie be the new Oprah? There's no shortage of people willing to try to fill her mighty shoes in the daytime arena. The most anticipated (and surely to be the most scrutinized) is Katie Couric's self-titled afternoon talker, which lets the former longtime Today anchor return to her conversational strengths, something her detour into evening-news anchoring rarely allowed. First guests will include Jessica Simpson and Sheryl Crow. ... Also joining the syndicated fray this week: Survivor's Jeff Probst and the return of Ricki Lake, whose celebrity was reignited on Dancing With the Stars. Comedian Steve Harvey got started last week, while Anderson Cooper is reformatting his show with ever-changing co-hosts, starting today with Kristin Chenoweth (good to see her back on TV after her Good Wife on-set accident). Most of the usual suspects launch new seasons this week, including CBS' The Talk, which gimmicks things up by having the hosts appear without makeup. (If they ever decide to a show without actually speaking, I might actually tune in.)

IN BRIEF: The highbrow event of the week kicks off tonight on PBS with the Great Performances at the Met documentary Wagner's Dream (check local tvguide.com listings), a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at director Robert Lepage's ambitious staging of Wagner's "Ring Cycle" operas. All four of the productions will air this week, Tuesday through Friday. Hope the opera buff's DVR can hold it all. ... On ABC Family's best series, Switched at Birth (8/7c), look for shock waves as news gets out about Regina's quickie green-card marriage to Bay's biological dad, Angelo (Gilles Marini). ... (Chef's) hats off to the winners being named on both of Gordon Ramsay's summer cooking competitions: first Hell's Kitchen (8/7c), then MasterChef (9/8c).

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!