Pride and prejudice: 'The New Normal' puts a relationship between two gay men centre stage

Ryan Murphy's new sitcom is groundbreaking but the show's subversive streak is spoilt by Ellen Barkin's hateful homophobic character, says Sarah Hughes

Few things in television are as standard as sitcom relationships. Television is awash with girls pining for guys, single ladies looking for love, treatises in male bonding and female friendship. Yet what all these relationships have in common is that they're overwhelmingly straight.

Gay characters will make the odd appearance in supporting roles certainly – and in the case of Happy Endings' slovenly, depressive Max may even break free of the "flamboyant" gay stereotype – but even then with a few notable exceptions (Modern Family's Eric and Cameron, Glee's Blaine and Kurt) their love lives are rarely allowed to take centre stage. That changed this season with the arrival of two sitcoms that placed gay relationships in the spotlight.

Partners, created by the team behind Will & Grace, was the more traditional of the two, essentially an updated Will & Grace with the twist that it's now about a gay man and his straight business partner/best friend. The gay man was pretty much a 2012 version of Will & Grace's Jack and the show felt a little as though it fell through a wormhole from the 1990s. Affable without being interesting, it failed to find much of an audience and was cancelled by CBS in November.

The New Normal, which has been picked up for the whole season and will air tonight on E4, is altogether more complicated affair. Before it started this comedy about a gay couple having a baby through a surrogate was already one of the most talked about new shows of the season. A television network in Utah refused to air it, right-wing pressure group One Million Moms called for a boycott and one of the show's stars, Ellen Barkin, took to Twitter to mount a vigorous defence of it.

For while The New Normal might not be the first comedy to look at gay marriage and parenthood – Modern Family has tackled similar issues throughout its run – it is the first sitcom where the central pairing is between two gay men with the rest of the cast in supporting roles.

So far so ground-breaking, however, the problem with The New Normal is the very thing that makes it so different in feel: it's a Ryan Murphy show.

Murphy, the man behind Popular, Glee, American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck, can be a strong writer. His shows exist in a candy-coloured larger-than-life world where the most outrageous actions are made ordinary and anything can and does go. When it comes together as in the earliest episodes of Nip/Tuck or Glee then Murphy's world is a pretty entertaining place to be.

The problem is that alongside that Ryan Murphy, the writer with a keen eye for the brilliantly bizarre, exists the Ryan Murphy who enjoys poking viewers with a sharp stick and then retreating to snigger behind his hand.

That Murphy is at the forefront of The New Normal, ensuring that while there are some good moments (most notably the genuine warmth at the heart of Andrew Rannells' and Justin Bartha's relationship and the fact that that relationship is clearly sexual, rare in depictions of gay couples on US television), there are many more where the entire enterprise threatens to spin off the tracks faster than you can shout "this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever…"

For a start there's the problem with tone. Murphy seems unsure whether he wants to preach to his audience – the pilot episode alone contains enough teachable moments to leave the cast of Glee groping for the right sappy song – or whether he wants to sit back and send the whole thing up. Frequently, he decides to do both in the same scene. Thus, Bryan's desire to have a baby is initially expressed in entirely shallow terms ["I want us to have baby clothes – and a baby to wear them."] but five minutes later and we're expected to believe this tin man has both a heart and soul. It's a credit to Rannells, a stage actor best known for The Book of Mormon, that he almost manages to charm us anyway.

The biggest problem, however, lies with Barkin's role as the surrogate mother's bigoted grandmother. While Barkin delivers a fully committed performance, the character is a typical Murphy trope: the person who says the forthright, cruel and often crude stuff you don't want to hear but can't quite help laughing at aka the Jane Lynch role.

For the first few episodes of Glee at least, Lynch's red track-suited Sue Sylvester was pretty funny, by contrast Barkin's Nana isn't so much entertaining as odious. She dubs Rannells and Bartha "salami smokers" refers to a lesbian couple as "ugly guys" and thanks an Asian woman with the line "You people are so darn good at computers. And thanks for building the railroads." It's Murphy at his most gleefully childish, playing it broad and crude and hiding behind the idea he can't possibly be being offensive when his show is a primetime sitcom with a gay couple at its centre. As Salon's review caustically remarked about this "We're just being honest" defence: "honesty doesn't make hate OK."

And while the sitcom pulled in a respectable 6.9 million viewers on its debut and has continued to draw solid ratings of around five to six million, early reviews were mixed. The New York Times hailed the sitcom's "wit and charm" but concluded the Barkin scenes sounded a "rare false note". The Washington Post, on the other hand, loved Barkin hailing her as "a cruel hybrid of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and Absolutely Fabulous's Patsy Stone (with Callista Gingrich's hairdo)" while Variety admitted "there's much to like… along with warning flags as to where the series could easily skid into the Pacific Ocean."

That last point may ultimately prove to be The New Normal's undoing. For unless Ryan Murphy decides which sitcom he's making: a perky ode to blended families with a strongly sentimental streak or a jet-black send-up of family values that aims to unsettle as much as amuse, then The New Normal will never be more than the sum of its disparate parts.

'The New Normal' starts tonight at 9pm on E4

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones