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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
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.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York