Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Post-Modern Family With a Not-So-Modern Premise

The New Normal is a sitcom on NBC from the minds of Alison Adler and Ryan Murphy.  They previously worked on "Glee", which, most certainly gave them the "street cred" to create another show.  It's fairly funny and it knows to give credit, albeit partial, where credit is due.  The show's tagline, "A Post-Modern Family" is not only apropos, it is also a sly nod to the ABC show, "Modern Family"which also features a Gay couple.   Heck, one of the leads works on a TV show called, "Sing", a sly nod to "Glee".

As I watch this show, week after week, it becomes clear to me that the show has another ancestor: the movie, "In the Heat of the Night".

For those who have not watched the show, the premise is this:  a single mom, Goldie (Georgia King) and her daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood) move in with a stable and happy Gay couple David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells) who want to become parents.  Goldie agrees to become a surrogate parent for the couple.

OK, so the plot differs from "In the Heat of the Night".  Steiger and Poitier didn't get along well enough to move in with each other.

"In the Heat of the Night" was a landmark movie for quite a few reasons.  Sidney Poitier was a rarity at that time, an African-American man that was a box-office draw as a dramatic lead in a major motion picture.  In this movie, he has to deal with being a fish out of water and a great deal of racism, even from the local police, even though he is a police officer himself.  I am not old enough to have seen this in the theater, however, I am certain that when Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is slapped by a prominent member of the community, Endicott (Larry Gates) and Tibbs, without hesitation, slaps him back and there was shock in some audiences that viewed this scene and loud cheers in others.  Tibbs and Gillespie (Rod Stieger in an Oscar-winning role) work together and Poitier is not a comedy sidekick and by the end of the film, both men gain respect for each other.

Let's be clear, though.  This film was made in 1965 and the film followed two years later.  America was dealing with race issues that were even more complicated than they are now.  All of the above attributes of the Tibbs role are good, late in their arrival on the cultural scene, but good.  What the filmmakers did to make absolutely sure that the audience knew where their sympathies were, there seemed to be, outside of Gillespie, a conscious effort to make the rest of the White citizens, not only racist, but only a few steps from knuckle-dragging idiots.  This overcompensation is not new.  In "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Simon Legree is just short of Satan's consultant and Uncle Tom is not only the noble victim, he is Christ-like.  Nevertheless, the book helped to end slavery, so who am I to argue?  Over one hundred years later, it's a literary trick that still works.

So, almost fifty years after the movie, what have we learned?  To quote the great composer, Jimmy "Nervous Norvus" Drake from his oratorio, "Ape Call", "Say!  We haven't changed a bit, have we, cats?"

Modern broadcast TV, is now cool with putting Gay couples in sitcoms as leads, even though, save "Ellen" from a few years ago, there doesn't seem to be ANYthing funny about Lesbians.  I won't speak to the truth of the portrayal of the male leads, because I'm not Gay and I wouldn't dare to make such assumptions, merely because I've met homosexuals over the years.  I will, however, say that I am able to spot a gay stereotype, if not ALL of them.

Instead, let's look at the straight characters.

Goldie, is Ms. Bad Choice.  She is a newly single mother with tenuous financial stability and Shania's husband is a cheating lout.  She leaves her husband and the state of Ohio, probably not a bad choice, but financially a challenging one.

Rocky Rhoades (NeNe Leakes) is Bryan's assistant.  She is single and seems to be built almost entirely out of stereotypes.  She is sassy, dyes her hair and has a funny name.

Jane Forrest (Ellen Barkin) is determined to bring her granddaughter and great-granddaughter back home to Ohio from California.  Every comedy needs someone that you dislike from time to time or has unlikable qualities, but one can hear the beeping of the dump truck to unload the bad qualities on this character.  She is fiercely homophobic, racist and in the era of a Democratic president and low approval ratings for the GOP, she is a Republican.  It is a matter of some debate if her character even smiles.

I'm enlightened enough, as a straight African-American Christian guy, to respect that these two men have a life together.  I also realize that the leads are played for laughs as well, which is leavened by the fact that both creators are homosexuals, thereby earning the "cultural pass" that, say, "In Living Color" had years ago  ("Well ____ runs the show, so it MUST be OK to laugh.")

It's a good thing to see that this show decided to make the leads successful.  One is a gynecologist, the other is a TV producer.  This is a step forward from the days of "Will and Grace", which used the old trick of allowing one character who was responsible (Will) to allow them to write to stereotype for another irresponsible one (Jack), which, in some ways made this show similar to "Amos and Andy" (Gay-mos and Andy?).  However, while the Gay couple have their foibles, they are young, handsome and successful.

ALL the Straights have issues.  It's revenge writing.  After years of segregation, marginalizing, brutality and neglect, up comes "The New Normal" and while there are probably any number of homosexuals raising their fists at the joy of validation, it can be argued that some are saying, "Yeah!  Heterosexuals stink!  Finally someone has the courage to say it!" and that, of course, is misguided.

How would I improve "The New Normal"?  While the show is rather heavy-handed in its contrasts, heavy-handed counterbalancing would be equally clumsy.  I'm all about shading.  If Jane Legre..., sorry, Forrest's character was stern but showed SOME heart as opposed to being anti-everything, I'd feel a bit better.  Granted, she has uprooted herself out of love of family, but the sympathy ends there.  The show is cartoonish at times, which is a universe that can work (see a good episode of "Community" for that), but Forrest is SO evil, one expects her to hold up a sign ala Tex Avery saying,"Go ahead and 'boo'.  I don't care!"  The show is otherwise well-cast; I rather like the leads and I like the mother and daughter.

I am not a fan of the Rhoades character at all.  To her credit, she has more common sense than the other Straight characters, but being almost 50, I've seen enough Sistas with 'tude to last me awhile.  If you must go down that road, I'd rather be laughing harder than saying to myself that I've seen this before.  I don't wish to find out how well she sings or dances.  Why complete the picture?

As I said, the creators, out of righteous anger, cultural inundation and comic economy have underestimated the intelligence of its audience by bringing out the bludgeon.  As we come up on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I think back to his message that encompasses everyone, while trying to level the playing field, without knocking others off of it.   "Modern Family" does a very good job of this.  All the family units have their issues, but all the relationships are solid and played for laughs at any given time (although the Shelley Long crazy-ex-wife episodes leave me cold).

With each episode of "The New Normal, I hear the late Ray Charles' soulful voice singing about high vespertine temperatures.

Not that there's anything wrong with THAT.  I like Ray Charles.

But it's not 1967, either.

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