Last Night's Viewing: The New Normal, E4 Silent Witness, BBC1


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The Independent Culture

I confess that I quite liked The New Normal even before I saw a frame of it, largely because I thought that the title would really wind up Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Not that he's very likely to get to hear about it, unless it's brought to his attention as an instance of just how bad things have got.

I don't suppose a comedy about a gay couple who end up living with the surrogate mother of their IVF baby would be the sort of thing the cardinal relaxes with after a hard day defending the sanctity of marriage. Even less so considering it's scripted by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, whose track record doesn't suggest a man deferential to Vatican sensitivities on this matter. But cardinal-irritation – fine though it is – won't go a very long way with a comedy, so I thought I ought to actually watch it as well.

It might come as a surprise to the cardinal to learn that his opposition to such arrangements does actually have a representative in the comedy, though he may not be happy to find that it comes in the shape of a caricature bigot, Ellen Barkin playing one of those monsters of intolerance with which Murphy likes to spice up his dramas (think of Sue Sylvester in Glee and then subtract some of her diplomacy). Barkin is Jane, identified as "Nana from Hell" on her grand-daughter Goldie's cellphone, and a woman who isn't troubled by political niceties. She calls gay people "ass-campers" but is indignant to be accused of prejudice: "I happen to love the gays," she says, "I could never get my hair to look this good without them."

The truth is that Jane is gay – perhaps not in sexuality but certainly in conversational sensibility, many of her lines having that whiplash tartness that is one distinctive marker of camp. It's a pantomimed heartlessness that presumably evolved as a kind of defence mechanism, and in The New Normal it has a nearly exact counterpoint in Bryan, the feyer member of the gay couple. Invited to spectate when the baby is implanted into the surrogate mother, Bryan pulls a face: "No, no! I faint at the sight of vaginas. They're like tarantula faces." You can't say that, you think, as you laugh. But blurting out what shouldn't be blurted is what both Jane and Bryan are for in this comedy. They appear opposed but are actually kindred spirits of unreined expression.

Goldie, who is trying to relaunch her life after a deadbeat relationship, gets the much less rewarding task of reminding us that there's a serious message here, issuing soupy truisms about the importance of love that won't be necessary for those on-side already and aren't very likely to convince anyone who isn't. Fortunately, there's not too much preaching. Goldie's counterpart in the drama is David, Bryan's partner, who underlines his unimpaired masculinity a little obviously by lying on the couch and watching football, and whose correctives mostly come in the form of a punchline: "You know that you can't return a baby to Barneys, right?" he says dubiously when Bryan first proposes that they become parents. I'm not sure it's worth the cardinal bothering to set up series record, but anyone not religiously obliged to be appalled won't be wasting memory space.

Silent Witness returned with a potential new boy for the team, a cocky young forensics man called Jack. Leo likes him because he gushed sycophantically about what a "legend" he was when they were introduced. Nikki is a little more doubtful. I'm not entirely sure either. Would you trust a forensic scientist who tests an unknown powder at the scene of an unexplained death by swiping his finger through it and having a lick? And wouldn't you want him to explain how he knows what talcum powder tastes like?