Stay Tuned: 'The New Normal' offers a different take on family life

Melissa Crawley

Conventional wisdom says that if you don't want to cause conflict among a group of people, particularly people you don't know very well, you avoid talking about politics and religion. In my experience, the same can be said of parenting and homosexuality.

I have been at dinner parties where guests get into heated arguments over childcare issues that range from the best way to discipline your kid to the always-popular debate, Sleeping in mom and dad's bed: sanity saver or future nightmare? Discussing homosexuality can lead to a similar mine field where one person's trip wire is gay marriage, while another person is ready to explode over the issue of inequality. Add “parenting” to “gay,” and in certain circles, you can sit back and watch the room blow up.

“The New Normal,” NBC's new sitcom about two gay men who use a surrogate to carry their child, is not waving a white flag over the issue of gay couples raising children. It is very proudly taking to the battlefield to fight for the cause. Calling the show “the new normal” is the first hint. It's far from a subtle statement, but the show tries hard not to preach and generally succeeds.

Bryan (Andrew Rannells, “The Book of Mormon”) and David (Justin Bartha, “The Hangover”) are successful, in a committed relationship and want a baby. They meet Goldie (Georgia King), a woman who decides to leave her cheating husband, dead-end job and narrow-minded grandmother to finally create the life she wants for her and her 8-year-old daughter Shania (Bebe Wood). Becoming a surrogate will help her financially but Goldie, who requests to be interviewed by a gay couple, also sees her choice as a statement about what constitutes a family.

When her grandmother Jane, played by a feisty Ellen Barkin, tracks her down, “The New Normal” introduces its comic-tragic villain character. Barkin plays Jane as an old-style Archie Bunker bigot who has a problem with anyone who isn't Caucasian, Christian and straight. Barkin's lines are sometimes funny and sometimes cringe-worthy but she strikes a good balance between Jane's offensiveness and her love for her family. Rounding out the cast is NeNe Leakes as Rocky, Bryan's assistant. Leakes, from the reality show “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” knows her strengths, so her portrayal of Rocky doesn't stray from the sharp-talking, sassy character she played on “Glee” where she had a recurring role as Coach Roz Washington.

One of the ideas behind the “The New Normal” is that all these characters form a family that should only be defined by the ways they care for one another and not for the ways they challenge the typical model of domestic life. It's a simple premise that shows like “Modern Family” already do well. It's also one that will not sit easy with some viewers because, unlike “Modern Family,” a gay couple is not one part of an ensemble but rather the primary focus. I think it goes without saying that viewers who have trouble accepting this will not watch the show, so “The New Normal” is in many ways (not really) preaching to the converted.

However, the show has an opportunity to do something even more interesting than normalizing gay parenting. The questions of how Bryan and David will deal with the ups and downs of parenthood and how Goldie will fulfill the dreams she put on hold are much less interesting than how or if Jane will change. I'm looking forward to finding out the answer.

“The New Normal” is on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. EDT on NBC.