A few weeks ago, I felt a surge of love for Bryan and David, the central gay couple on The New Normal, and I wrote about how they were the best gay characters on TV.
In case you need a refresher, I like Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) because they seem to genuinely care about each other, have actual sexual chemistry, and tackle adult-world problems about money, family, and work with a modicum of maturity. To me, this sets them apart from the mean-spirited, emotionally stunted, sexually neutered Mitchell and Cameron on Modern Family and the pathetic, subadolescent narcissists on Partners.
Since I wrote that essay, though, I’ve heard from people I respect about how they disagree with me… about how they find the show offensive. Many critics agree. Some have taken the show to task for its racism-disguised-as-knowing-liberalism (which is also a fair critique of Glee, also created by Ryan Murphy), and others have said that the gay characters are not progressive… that they are actually the worst kinds of stereotypes that push us all backward.
I can’t disagree with any of their arguments. Just like Mitch and Cam, David and Bryan do fulfill the “new stereotype” of gay relationships in which one guy is really queeny and talks about shoes all the time and the other guy is neurotic and super-tidy and clearly does all the banking in the family. And it’s true, too, that the show is spinning with racist humor that rarely makes a clever point or leads to any kind of learning. In fact, I’d say that Ellen Barkin’s character—a super right-wing grandmother who’s always making racist/sexist/homophobic comments—is the weakest and most troubling part of the series. She reaches for insults so often that she sometimes seems less like a human being than a walking provocation machine.
If this is progress, then do we want it? If the cost of out gay characters is a cesspool of hatred spewing all over the place—and disguised as intelligent comedy, no less—then should we scrap it all and start over with something new?
As I ask these questions, I am troubled by their relevance not only to The New Normal, but also to an entire subset of American comedy that uses this shroud of “I know it’s wrong, so it’s okay” posturing to justify downright hatefulness.
And yet… I still like The New Normal. I still like the way the characters deal with issues like internalized gay shame, self-segregation (based on class, race, or both), and the delicate act of being gay around your partner’s parents. Those issues are real, and as I’ve said before, I feel they’re being dealt with in a meaningful way on the show. Underneath Bryan’s obsession with fashion, for instance, there’s also a man who will articulate, quite beautifully, how scared he is that he might someday apologize to his child for being gay. That he’s terrified he will someday feel guilty for making her life harder than it needs to be. And you know… that’s not a “stereotypical” argument. It’s specific and real. The same goes for Grandma’s recent monologue about why she’s a Republican. It wasn’t rooted in racism, that speech, but in clear, human-sounding terms. I may not have shared her beliefs, but I understood them in that moment.
But is it enough? Are those moments enough to offset all the hate?
At this point, I honestly don’t know. I’ve never had this problem before, where a show that’s so obviously offensive is also moving me week after week. In my head, I know I should be turning away, but in my heart, I don’t want to. Not totally, at least. I don’t know what to make of it.
What do you think? Are you offended by the show? Do you love it? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
ALSO: Don’t miss Louis Peitzman’s recaps of each week’s episode. He’s dealing with a lot of these issues, too, and we don’t always agree.
Mark Blankenship is very confused by all this. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship