The New Normal is American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy's first attempt at a sitcom — but not just any sitcom, a "gay sitcom" (at least according to all the various media outlets that label the series as "gay TV," "NBC's gay comedy," etc.). But while David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan's (Andrew Rannells) sexuality might establish The New Normal as progressive, the series is heavily grounded in TV storytelling tradition. Once you look past the same-sex aspect, it's easy to see how The New Normal has more in common with classic sitcoms like Roseanne than it does Will & Grace.
Comedies have been moving away from conventional sitcoms over the years to keep audiences from becoming jaded with the well-known territory. But recently, series have begun returning to traditional formulas, finding fresh twists on familiar ground. For How I Met Your Mother, it's the play with time lines. The Mindy Project has its wonderfully meta-satire on romantic comedies. For The New Normal, it's the characters. While each lead is based one of comedy's most classic archetypes, Murphy and the show's co-creator Ali Adler found a way to evolve each character into the new millennia.
David and Brian as The Old Couple: Bryan and David have gotten a lot of flak for supposedly perpetuating the stereotype that in same-sex relationships one partner takes on the role of the "man" while the other becomes the "woman." But Bryan and David aren't embodying feminine versus masculine. Instead, they demonstrate the age-old contrast — and attraction — between flamboyancy and rationality, much like I Love Lucy's Ricardos or Modern Family's Dunphys. Bryan and David's playful back-and-forth help to demonstrate that gay couples share the same struggles and growth as every other couple — and can be just as funny doing it! (Seriously, I could listen to David say "Terry Bradshaw" all day.)
Goldie as The Innocent Dreamer: Typically, the small town girl with big dreams is held back by nothing but herself. Goldie (Georgia King), on the other hand, comes with more than her fair share of baggage, including a 9-year-old daughter, a philandering husband and a growing fetus that has currently taken up residence in her womb. This shifts Goldie's priorities from the typical ingénue's, with Goldie not wanting a better life for herself, but simply a better life for her daughter.
Shania as the Precocious Kid: Sitcoms are no strangers to wise-beyond-their-years young'uns, but Shania (Bebe Wood) might just be the most precocious of all. Her staunch morals, nonchalant delivery and epic Grey Gardens impression make Shania the most magnetic — and wisest — character of the series. Shania also provides the moral grounding of the show, but not like most sitcom kids, whose innocence inspires those around them (I'm looking at you, Michelle Tanner). All of Shania's decisions are conscious and weighed, whether it's who she votes for in a mock election or if she wants to stay Facebook friends with her bigoted great-grandma. Oh, and did I mention the Grey Gardens impression? Because it was really that good.
Jane as The Crotchety Elder: Though no one shares her conservative views, Jane (Ellen Barkin) doesn't seem to mind, openly offending everyone she comes across — even her own family. Jane's insults, though vaguely reminiscent of other curmudgeons like Married...with Children's Al Bundy, can occasionally be far more scathing than those of most of her cantankerous predecessors. This is because Jane's bias doesn't stem from ignorance, thus making her educated hatred that much harder to bear. The sad truth is, prejudice like Jane's does exist (though most prefer to ignore it). Though she could tone it down a bit, at least the character of Jane brings these issues to the forefront.
And Jane's offensive zingers aren't the only way The New Normal pushes boundaries. In a very brazen move during election season, the sitcom's Sept. 25 episode "Obama Mama" was politically centered, featuring a clash between die-hard Republican Jane with Democrats Brian and Dave. Unlike most openly liberal sitcoms, The New Normal allowed each side to espouse their views (and frankly, didn't paint either party in that flattering a light).
In an effort to prove they aren't racist, David and Bryan host a dinner where they try and get as many black guests as possible. The situation quickly devolves, exposing the different forms racism takes in modern society as well as sets the scene for a heated political discussion.
If the open debate, mixed with laughter, tears — and even a little love — reminded you of the topical and touchy discussions that used to riddle prime-time comedies' "very special episodes," then Murphy's doing something right. The producer recently admitted "Obama Mama" was inspired by All in the Family's dinner table discussions between Archie Bunker, the loveable bigot, and his bleeding heart son-in-law Meathead.
This poignancy with which serious subjects used to be broached on broadcast is something missing from the majority of modern-day comedies. The New Normal is a welcome return to this era, where no topic is off-limits and all voices will be heard, respected — and mocked — equally. So while it is important that New Normal centers on a gay family, it's more important that the series does not become defined by this. So please, no more mentions of "gay TV," because The New Normal has already proved it's so much more than that.
The New Normal airs Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c on NBC.