Ryan Murphy helped bring back musicals with his freak-and-geek-tastic FOX series “Glee,” and his “American Horror Story” simultaneously scared the wits out of its viewers while making sly observations about the nuclear family at its core.
But “The New Normal,” the NBC Tuesday comedy premiering Sept. 11, may be Murphy’s most surprising and subversive series yet, finding humor and heart in a decidedly shopworn premise: a couple pursuing their dream of becoming parents.
The couple in question here is gay: Bryan (Andrew Rannells from Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon”), a successful television producer, and David (Justin Bartha, Nicolas Cage’s sidekick from the “National Treasure” movies), a sweet-natured gynecologist. Happily in a stable and committed relationship, they desperately want a child to share their lives but become disheartened by the obstacles they face.
Enter Goldie (Scottish newcomer Georgia King), a waitress who has fled a dead-end marriage in Ohio to make a fresh start in California with her precocious 8-year-old daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood), with Goldie’s conservative and bigoted grandmother (Ellen Barkin) in hot pursuit. Desperate and broke, with few immediate career prospects, Goldie sees the hefty financial bonus Bryan and David are offering their surrogate as her ticket to a new life.
Even before the show has premiered, it already has drawn the ire of one conservative group that has called for a boycott, sight unseen. Bartha says he’s aware of that development, but he hopes people will watch the show and discover that it really isn’t overtly political.
“We are aware that it’s something that will be looked at, but it’s also an issue that is, in my opinion, well past its expiration date,” Bartha tells Zap2it. “I just think it’s ridiculous that this still an issue, and if you kept addressing that, it would become overbearing. It’s about how everyone relates to each other and how hard it is to have a family, and that also has to do with straight people, white people, black people, old people, young people, everything.
“This show really is, first and foremost, a show about family, just as ‘All in the Family’ was. The fact that the central characters are gay is not the talking point of every single scene, which is one of the things I love most about the show. It’s just another characteristic of these people.”
During a summer press conference with TV reporters, Murphy — who created “The New Normal” with fellow executive producer Ali Adler — professed to being surprised by the kerfuffle.
“I think all the characters are lovable, and I think everybody has people in their family who are representative, hopefully, of these characters,” says Ryan, who adds that he fondly remembers watching “All in the Family” as a child. “I certainly think the most controversial character probably will be Ellen Barkin’s character. But I remember Thanksgivings when I was growing up when my grandmother would actually say these jaw-dropping things, and we would call her out on it.”
Rannells, like Murphy, happens to be openly gay, so he’s vividly aware that the issues the show addresses are important to many of its potential viewers, particularly during a volatile election year, but the actor insists that he can’t really allow himself to become too focused on that at work.
“I think you have to kind of put that aside,” Rannells says. “The writing is very smart and very funny, and it’s very heartfelt. Yes, it is about this gay couple and their journey with surrogacy, but the way that it is written is so specific that it becomes strangely universal, becomes about families and relationships in general. I can’t really think in terms of how it’s going to be received or whether it means something larger. We’re just focused on making it a good and funny show right now, and I am very optimistic that it will find our audience.”
Murphy created the semiautobiographical show with Rannells in mind to play Bryan (read: Ryan), but Bartha was quick to get on board after he read the pilot script.
“I thought it was great and seemed important in a weird way, so I wanted to be involved,” he explains. “When I do watch television, a lot of the things I see while I am flipping around look disposable, whether it’s scripted or unscripted. The cast that we have assembled — and I am not talking about myself here — are all just indelible in the way they are creating lovable and representative characters. There are so many people in this country who identify with a single mother’s perspective, and then it’s interesting to see these issues through the eyes of a little girl, then at the opposite end of the spectrum, to see it from Ellen’s character’s conservative white woman’s eyes. That’s why this is such a fascinating show.”
“Sometimes when you talk about this show it’s easy to forget that it’s a comedy, but I love how they’re able to work in those heartfelt moments as well,” Rannells adds. “For gay couples especially, I think it takes a lot more work to just start a family. There’s a lot of expense, a lot of time, a lot more paperwork. It’s really cool that we’re going to get to show this process from start to finish. I don’t think we’ve seen that in such a focused way on television before. But I don’t think we sacrifice any laughs in the process.”