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

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own