When it comes to TV comedies about every-day-gay Americans, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow remains tantalizingly just out of reach. Viewers who put a lot of stock in television’s symbolic weight as a social-acceptance meter can sense that equality is getting closer; ABC’s “Modern Family” found the gold almost effortlessly, and even left explicit instructions for others: It’s about the writing and the cast, period.
But even “Modern Family’s” success doesn’t mean the networks are any closer to, say, the gay equivalent of “Seinfeld” or “The Bob Newhart Show,” in which both the situation and the comedy are sui generis, and not just gay.
With two new gay-themed sitcoms this fall — Ryan Murphy’s “The New Normal,” which premiered on NBC last week, and David Kohan and Max Mutchnick’s “Partners,” which will debut on CBS on Sept. 24 — certain rituals must be obeyed: Gay rights groups have to laud such a show for making progress, while the show runners and stars must gratefully accept those lauds while wishing aloud that the show could be judged on its post-gay merit. (In fact, wouldn’t it be nice if all of life were like that? they muse in interviews, and so on.) Finally, a church-owned or otherwise conservative affiliate somewhere (often Salt Lake City, as in “The New Normal’s” case) must refuse to air it and hunt around for something else (“The Donna Reed Show”?) to plug into the time slot.
It isn’t really a gay show, after all, until somebody’s knickers are in a twist.
Murphy is the best knicker-twister making television right now. Having given audiences “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” he masterfully launches a high-concept show in a kinetic burst, brazenly crossing lines of genre and decency and never looking back or second-guessing his instincts. When his shows debut, a viewer basks in the icy dialogue (remember how fanatically people used to tweet lines of “Glee” dialogue in real time?) and the thoroughly modern style. Eventually, though, the clamor cools and only hard-core fans remain.
“The New Normal” feels entirely like a Murphy show, with its spit-takingly funny lines as well as the worry that the show’s energy level isn’t sustainable. It pulls up in a very big bus and does you, the viewer, the favor of assuming you’re with-it enough to jump aboard. In Barneys, a well-to-do Los Angeles man named Bryan (Andrew Rannells, of Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon”) is shopping for Mary Tyler Moore-esque cropped pants and gets instant baby fever when the occupant of a passing stroller smiles at him:
“Oh my God, that is the cutest thing I have ever seen. I must have it,” he explains that night to his partner, David (“The Hangover’s” lost groom, Justin Bartha).
David, a gynecologist, has doubts: “You really think it’s such a good idea to bring a kid into the world with such a non-traditional family?”
To which Bryan points out: “Look around — your definition of ‘traditional’ might need a refresh. . . . I know somebody else who was raised in a non-traditional family — a Halfrican-American who was raised by a grandma. And that person seems to be doing just fine.”
“Barack Obama,” David says.
“No, Mariah Carey,” Andrew says. “But your example works, too.”
Bryan and David hire an elite baby-making service to help them find a surrogate mother — an Easy-Bake Oven, who has no legal rights to the cupcake, as Andrew explains. After some costly missteps, they decide on Goldie (Georgia King), a waitress who fled Ohio with her 9-year-old daughter (Bebe Wood) to escape a cheating boyfriend and the meddlesome influence of Goldie’s grandmother, Jane.
Ellen Barkin plays Jane, dribbling deliciously acid dialogue and all but running away with the show. Murphy only pretends to be making a modern-day sitcom about two daddies having a baby. What he’s really after — what his shows are almost always after — is a parody of the culture wars.
Like “Glee’s” Sue Sylvester before her, Jane has a wicked version of right-wing Tourette’s syndrome, uttering knife-sharp lines that are anti-Semitic, anti-Hispanic and anti-lesbian in just one scene. This makes a representational stand-in for what Murphy and co-writer Ali Adler must imagine in the worst of Fox News-addicted, red-state, anti-gay detractors. Although, as a caricature, they have done Jane the ultimate favor of making her faaaabulous.
All of which can be hilariously entertaining, if you’re predisposed, especially with the extra sauce of former “Real Housewife” and “Glee” coach NeNe Leakes, who has become something of a Murphy repertory player in the role of Bryan’s office assistant, Roxy. But “The New Normal” disavows the comparative tameness and equanimity of “Modern Family,” which means that it will shed a lot of potential viewers as it pushes forward.
By comparison, CBS’s “Partners” explores that rarest of things — the lifelong friendship between a gay man and a straight man — but does so in a way that seems torturously outdated when compared with “The New Normal.” Kohan and Mutchnick gave us “Will & Grace” in the late 1990s, which was hailed for its progress and sass, but owed much of its eight-season success to the chemistry of its cast.
The magic hasn’t quite transferred. Even though Kohan and Mutchnick have drawn the premise from their own straight/gay friendship, their particular sense of a “gay moment” has clocked out, especially in portraying the gay guy, Louis (“Ugly Betty’s” Michael Urie) as a fussy, annoying narcissist who named his basset hound Elpheba; he’s a throwback to “Will & Grace’s” Jack, forgetting that Jack was a sidekick designed for comic relief, not the lead. “The New Normal” likewise nellifies Bryan and makes him just as self-absorbed, but with different results. The lesson here seems to be that audiences won’t recognize a gay man unless he’s overdoing it. (Somewhere, Will weeps.)
Similarly, both shows give their effeminate gay characters a domestic partner who is butch: Bryan’s David likes to watch football and, symbolically, Bryan decides David’s sperm is the better candidate for fertilizing the egg their surrogate hopes to carry. For Louis, it’s Brandon Routh’s Wyatt, a hunky and not terribly bright nurse, who at one point says he “didn’t want to seem gay.”
“Wyatt, my love,” Louis retorts, “You’re a male nurse who DVRs everything on Bravo. That ship has sailed.”
“Partners,” which co-stars David Krumholtz as the heterosexual friend and business partner, gets off to an energetic start, but in a conventional, almost drab, CBS-ish way. Kohan and Mutchnick fall back on old tricks — “Will & Grace”-style miscommunications and even an ethnic stereotype resonant of Rosario the maid, this time a Puerto Rican secretary, to whom Louis says: “Rosanna, the way you’re presenting your bosom this morning is sure to make Bernardo the envy of every Shark at the rumble.”
Both shows suggest that the novelty of a “gay show” is itself an old concept. Which could mean that a superior sitcom with a gay lead character or two should get to us sometime this decade.
(30 minutes) airs at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC.
(30 minutes) premieres at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 24, on CBS.