Painful admission: Last year at this time, as the network premieres rained down upon us and dampened my judgment, I liked the pilot for “2 Broke Girls.” The CBS sitcom promised to be a positive, witty portrayal of single women.
Yeah, right. Promise is the bane of the fall TV season. Too often, the pleasures of the pilots sent to critics for review have disappeared by episode 2, after the creators have jumped into the everyday running of a show and after the network has asked them for more imbecility. “2 Broke Girls” quickly became the migraine it is today, a brain constriction of bad puns, vaudevillian sex jokes, and racial stereotyping. And I felt burned.
Which brings me to NBC’s “The New Normal,” the sitcom from Ryan Murphy of “Glee” that premieres Monday night at 10 on Channel 7. The pilot shows promise, particularly in the originality of the premise. The idea is that a gay couple in Beverly Hills, Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha), want a baby. So they hire as their surrogate a sweet, struggling single mother, Goldie (Georgia King), who has a precocious preteen daughter (Bebe Wood) and a racist, hate-filled grandmother (Ellen Barkin). Thrown together, they form a newfangled, jerry-rigged entity. It’s “Modern Family”-esque, in that the show will explore the intersection of extended family and family of choice.
In other words, precisely what has made a conservative mothers’ organization and a Utah TV station condemn “The New Normal” is what is so fresh about it. “Abnormal,” in the words of one character, “is the new normal,” and it’s fun to see a series embracing and finding humor in that reality.
Also a plus: The leading actors are likable, except Barkin, who tries too hard to sell her bigot and becomes an empty cartoon. Rannells, from “The Book of Mormon,” and Bartha make a believably warm couple, and King, who is British, brings a flawless Midwestern earnestness to Goldie as she tries to restart her life and go to law school. They form a unit you want to root for.
But there are warning signs in the “New Normal” pilot, and so I’m taking my promise with a side of wariness. For one thing, so far the characters run dangerously close to stereotypes. Bryan is the classic Bravo gay, who is obsessed with fashion and weight and uses phrases such as “Face it, honey.” He sees a baby while shopping, and he must have one, leading the more typically masculine David to say, “Sweetie, you know you can’t return a baby to Barneys.” Bryan’s assistant, Rocky (NeNe Leakes), is the familiar finger-wagging black woman. Wood is that tired sitcom and movie cliche, the too-smart kid. And Barkin is so stubbornly one-note, as she rants about gays, Jews, and Asians, she is a reminder of just how expertly Carroll O’Connor kept Archie Bunker real. Perhaps the writers will add dimension to these characters going forward? Fingers crossed.
Another potential problem: While “Modern Family” is built on character-based comedy, “The New Normal” pilot reveals an unfortunate tendency toward broad one-liners, many of which are misfires. “I happen to love the gays,” says Barkin’s Jane, “I could never get my hair to look this good without them.” Clunk. “I thought your mother was a fibroid tumor,” Jane says to Goldie; “By the time I figured it out, she had a face and I was screwed.” Clunk. “The New Normal” is sweet-natured, in the way the characters mingle their lives together; but the jokes, they are mighty spotty.
And then we also need to find out if Murphy, with co-creator Ali Adler, can resist pulling a “Glee” on “The New Normal.” On “Glee,” he set up a lovely high school scenario with appealing characters and then used them shamelessly to make Big Points. He chucked out character continuity in order to deliver an issues show. Will he do that again with “The New Normal”? I will be watching to find out. Promise.