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Old-fashioned family values in ‘New Normal’

By DAVID WIEGAND San Francisco Chronicle

Publication: The Day

Published September 09. 2012 4:00AM
NBC, Trae Patton/AP Photo
Andrew Rannells as Bryan, left, and Justin Bartha as David in "The New Normal," premiering Sept. 11 at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.

I wish I didn't have to write about what Ellen Barkin's character calls "the gay elephant in the room" in the new sitcom "The New Normal," but since the show was targeted by a conservative moms group before anyone saw it and has since been rejected by a Utah NBC station by programmers who did see it, there's just no way around it.

Co-created by Ryan Murphy of "Glee" and "American Horror Story" fame, "The New Normal" is about a male couple in a committed relationship who decide to have a child through a surrogate. It is no more offensive than Mitchell and Cameron's relationship in ABC's "Modern Family," there is one extremely brief kiss between the two guys in the pilot and the only offensive language spews from the heavily lip-sticked mouth of Barkin's character: You'd have to be an idiot not to see that her bigotry is played for laughs, a tradition that goes back at least as far as, oh, I don't know, Archie Bunker?

Watch or don't watch, it's your choice, but if you do opt out, you'll be missing a fairly promising new show with a lot of humor, solid performances, a snappily written script and, yes, a lot to say about the evolving nature of families. Most of all, you'll be missing a show with so much heart, it feels almost old-fashioned. "Fathers Know Best"?

Bryan (Andrew Rannells, "Girls") and David (Justin Bartha, "The Hangover") are a traditional sitcom couple, except that they're both guys. Bryan is a flighty shopaholic while David is a more grounded OB/GYN who likes hanging out on the couch watching sports. One day, on a shopping trip, Bryan realizes he wants to be a dad. David is skeptical: A kid isn't something you can take back to Barneys, he cautions.

The guys sign up for a surrogate through an agency and interview several hilariously inappropriate choices, including Gwyneth Paltrow as a Gwyneth Paltrow look-alike. Finally, they find Goldie (Georgia King, "One Day"), who had to put her dreams to be a lawyer on hold when, as a teen, she became pregnant with her daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood), a very centered, very precocious 9-year-old who speaks her mind on a regular basis.

Goldie tried to make a relationship work with Shania's father, but finding him in bed with another woman is just the wake-up call she needs to start following her own dreams again and make an even better life for Shania.

And then there's Nana Jane, or "Nana from hell" as she's identified on Goldie's cell phone. A real estate broker with perfectly sculpted hair, Jane (Barkin) never met a minority she couldn't be prejudiced against. A little girl who once out-sold her on a Girl Scout cookie sale did so because she was Jewish; she likes "the gays" because they do such a good job with her hair; and you can imagine her reaction when she meets Bryan's assistant, Rocky (NeNe Leakes, "Glee").

Written by Murphy and co-creator Ali Adler, the script for the pilot crackles with sharp one-liners, but the big take-away here is that it's sweet to the edge of sentimental. Yeah, there's a socio-political message, especially in a playground sequence showing just some of the ways the realities of contemporary life are redefining the definition of family. But even more important, the show delivers a message that whatever we think of as the "ideal" family situation, it isn't always possible these days.

But what is possible is a pair of loving parents. Or, for that matter, a single loving parent. Like it or not, it is "The New Normal," and it makes for a touching and funny new sitcom.

"The New Normal" airs at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on NBC. Pilot previews at 10 p.m. Monday after "The Voice."

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