What Went Wrong With “The New Normal”

The official word is in and it’s time to say goodbye. So let’s take a little time to talk over what went wrong.

The Cancellation Bear has devoured The New Normal along with David, Bryan, Goldie, Shania, Rocky, Clay, Jane and Bryce. It’s not really a surprise to any of us, because the ratings plummeted since January. But my heart hurts and I will miss this show so much.

Having lost Firefly and Veronica Mars, I have become sadly numb to the whole cancellation of shows that I love. So I am choosing to look on the bright side—we got one entire season with this wonderful cast.

Initially, TNN looked like a hit. It debuted to solid ratings. Even One Million Moms did their part by condemning it, thus guaranteeing a whole lot of interest in it. The show quickly picked up a full season order.

It looked like Bryan and David were here to stay. So what went wrong? Here are my thoughts.


The Nana Problem

One of the cornerstones of New Normal’s humor was the idea of mocking stereotypes by showing them in exaggerated forms. This was most prominently featured in Ellen Barkin’s character of Jane Forrest. The idea, as I saw it, was to sort of mock these poor souls in our society who just refuse to get with the times. The joke, in my opinion, was to say, “look what these people think. Isn’t that funny?”

I thought it was hilarious. I was in the minority. To a lot of people, Nana was too offensive, too awful to be tolerated. The showrunners caught on to this, I think, and by Christmas had set out to soften the character up. By then, it was just too late.

And that really is a shame. Seeing Jane come to grips with her anger at her gay late husband was wonderful viewing. It was so poignant that she loved him so much and resented his gayness for keeping him from fully loving her.

There were other fantastic stories with Nana. The way she, as a mature woman, came to take command of her sexuality was brilliant. Her constant terror that Shania would wind up a pregnant teenager was so very real and it colored so many of her actions.

The way she behaved in the finale was a complete validation of the character, in my view, and a testament to Barkin’s amazing acting. She was able to take this character through all of her difficult and sometimes ugly learning arcs.

But, as I said, most people couldn’t see past her bigotry, her racism and her generally awful behavior of the early episodes. The character had been irretrievably marred by her first impressions.


Hurricane Sandy

The New Normal experienced a lot of bumps in October. The lamentable election episode took the show into a place it really should have avoided. A seasoned, veteran show can maybe get away with that, but not a show that is getting its footing. Obama Mama was a clumsily written episode that tried to examine racial, political and gay stereotypes and only basically managed to offend everyone.

The Godparent Trap was received better, though not by me. However, I still think it was a weak episode. It again showed that the writers were still trying to figure out what to do with their show and how to reach their audience.

What TNN needed desperately right then was a fantastic episode that cemented the characters, moved along their arcs and showed us again why we should love them. And it was ready to serve up that pitch. Para New Normal Activity was an excellent episode that would have really helped endear the show to its fledgling viewership.

Unfortunately, the gays and their sinful ways brought about Hurricane Sandy, which more or less wiped out the Eastern Seaboard. The New Normal got pre-empted. I don’t know if it was possible for it to be pushed to later in the week or something, but taking it off the roster seriously hurt the show.

Because the next week was the election. So now TNN was off the air for two weeks, which would hurt any show that was just seven episodes in. And it comes back with “Unplugged”, which had things we didn’t understand (like Nana and Rocky suddenly being friends) and things we didn’t like—like Shania being an insufferable brat.

So the absence of the Halloween episode damaged the entire tone of the show going forward, I think,

Just Too Gay

We can argue The New Normal’s failings until the proverbial cows come home. But Bryan and David were a gay male couple acting as the leads of a show. Unlike the ensemble cast of Modern Family, TNN was definitely primarily about David and Bryan, with everyone else acting supporting characters.

There was never really any doubt that such a concept would alienate most of the populations of Idaho, Utah and Mississippi. If the gay couple at its center didn’t throw them into a frothing rage, then the character of Nana being created just to mock them surely would have pushed them over.

But there is a wide gap between the Fred Phelpses of the world and Zach Wahls. For instance, there is my friend’s mom who thinks homosexuality is wrong but has absolutely no problem with her daughter’s gay friends. Yeah, I don’t get that either.

TNN wasn’t just a gay show, it was an in-your-face gay show. Bryan and David kissed, they snuggled in bed, they made comments about biting the pillow. The show revolved around their concerns about dealing with homophobes, their struggles with the marriage equality issue, what their roles would be as parents and how they would bond with their kid without being able to breastfeed them. Okay, sorry, I know we’re all still trying to forget the breastfeeding debacle.

The point is, the issues of this show are familiar to so many gays and lesbians, but they don’t resonate as much with straight people. Even staunch allies can get bored watching a show about things that don’t touch their lives.

I applaud The New Normal for being so irrepressibly gay, but I am sure it cost them in viewers. It’s not about homophobia, I don’t think. It’s about relatabilty. People watch shows that reflect their own lives in some way, and I just don’ think there was enough of that in The New Normal.

Most shows deal with this problem by going the route of Modern Family or Partners. That is to say, they make the gay characters not the focus of the show but just a part of it. Sadly, this is a much more effective marketing technique.

The New Normal could have helped itself by generalizing their message a bit more—focusing on stories about the anxieties of all new parents. That would also have helped to show the similarities between gay and straight parents, instead of emphasizing the differences.


These Guys Aren’t Like Me

No sooner had The New Normal come out when it was savaged by the very people it was hoping to win over. Frank Bua wrote a scathing article tearing TNN apart for what he felt was a cartoonish misrepresentation of gay parenting.

Former AE editor Brent Hartinger ripped into the show as well, upset with what he felt was the obnoxiousness of Bryan. He found the character offensive. Which, of course, is entirely within his rights to do.

Others have taken issue with the fact that the guys are upper class gay men, which they feel is a tired stereotype. Still other complained that the shows gays were just another “butch and femme” couple that TV had been giving us for decades.

My personal belief is that this all basically comes down to what I was saying earlier—people like to see themselves reflected in a show. For a time, the gay community was content any time they managed to get a gay character on TV. With the wonderful progress that has been made in the last decade, that is no longer the case. Now everyone wants to see themselves reflected in the character


Overdose of Moralizing

It took the writers of TNN way too long to figure out how to talk about gay issues without it feeling like a 2×4 to the head. It would have been better to save some of that for future seasons anyway, but dedicating so much screen time to teaching people about the gay experience was off-putting, even to those of us who live with these things.

It wasn’t until the episode about Scouting that the writers finally learned how to show the effects of homophobia in a real and honest way instead of sounding like protesters at a Pride rally.

There is only so much of that that an audience can take. A little sprinkling would have been fine, but this show spread it on like Paula Dean would do with a tub of butter.


The Shame of Effemiphobia

The saddest thing for me was how this show brought out the effimiphobia that rots at the core of the GLBT community. Instead of simply saying, “Bryan isn’t like me” a great many people attacked him as a terrible stereotype that was an offense to the gay community. They didn’t care that Bryan represented a very real part of the gay community. The effemiphobia that ran rampant was discouraging, as if those people who are like Bryan should be ashamed of themselves—that they too were a blight on the gay community.

As a bisexual who has felt the sting of biphobia, I have to say I am endlessly saddened when people who identify as gay feel justified saying dreadful things about their fellow members of the alphabet soup.

People who were put off by Bryan because they thought he represented the stereotypical “femme” missed out on a complex, multi-faceted character who was far stronger than he at first seemed.


In the end, I don’t think it was any one thing that sank The New Normal. I think it was a lot of factors, including lack of network support.

I want to close with a thank you to actors Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells for committing fully to the beautiful couple of David and Bryan. You guys showed the world what a loving, affectionate gay couple is, even if the world wasn’t quite ready for it.