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Ryan Murphy's New Show Reduces Cultural Bigotry to a Personal Problem

“The New Normal,” the latest sitcom from “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy, began stoking conservative outrage even before it aired. It was banned from NBC’s Salt Lake City affiliate; the Christian group One Million Moms blasted it for promoting the “decay of morals and values.” But it is hard, at first glance, to understand all the fuss. NBC’s “The New Normal,” which revolves around a gay couple and a surrogate, breaks little cultural ground at a moment when Ann Romney can unironically declare her favorite show to be “Modern Family.” The sitcom follows Bryan (Andrew Rannells), a showrunner for a successful TV program and a stand-in for Murphy himself, and his partner David (Justin Bartha), a gynecologist, as they try to start a family. No stereotype-busting here: the relationship so far seems chaste and cartoonish. Bryan is flamboyant where David is staid and masculine, like so many gay TV duos before them—Jack and Will from “Will & Grace,” Cameron and Mitchell from “Modern Family,” who have an argument in one episode about which of them is more “mommish.” But if Murphy’s portrayal of a gay relationship is well-worn comic territory, his new show is startling in a different way: its shallow, sentimental treatment of bigotry.

“The Glee Project,” the Oxygen network reality show that auditions teenagers to guest star on “Glee,” is a surprisingly useful window into Murphy’s mind. At the end of each episode, he and a panel of other judges—mostly writers from “Glee”—watch the struggling contestants’ performances and give feedback. Even after one episode, a pattern becomes clear. “I get that you’re sexy and you love boys. I’m worried about you because the show is about underdogs and you’re not an underdog.” Murphy tells one teen. At one point, another judge remarks: “I did feel that I missed his wound. You want to see the big vulnerability.”

The wound, the big vulnerability: In Ryan Murphy’s universe, everyone has one. On “The New Normal,” David and Bryan choose a surrogate named Goldie, a sweet and spineless thing who got pregnant at fifteen and discovers her husband in bed with another woman in the first episode. Her daughter Shania is in the throes of a pint-sized identity crisis, wrapping a cardigan around her head and pretending to be Edie from Grey Gardens. In the spirit of showcasing the full spectrum of happily abnormal families, the pilot features a midget who explains that, when she got pregnant, she knew there was a 50 percent chance her daughter would be “a part-time Christmas elf like me” and a middle-aged former prostitute who was artificially inseminated.

The most overpowering figure on “The New Normal,” though, does not initially seem like an underdog at all: Goldie’s grandmother Nana (Ellen Barkin), a right-wing firebrand and the show’s unlikely matriarch. She is Rush Limbaugh in a Cindy McCain suit (with “Calista Gingrich hair,” as one character points out), outrageous in her offensiveness. In her various rants, gays, Jews, Asians, and blacks all get merrily skewered. At one point she brandishes a pistol in front of Goldie’s deadbeat husband. She is a liberal cartoon of far-right extremism. But in the way of useful social or cultural critique, she does not have much to offer.

Murphy has said that Nana is designed as a female Archie Bunker: a bile-spewing bigot pitted against her family’s more progressive values. “When I was growing up,” Murphy told Vulture recently, “I loved all the stuff that Norman Lear did. This show in a weird way is a salute and an homage to his work in that it’s really about tackling social issues.” But “All in The Family” tackled social issues in far more subtle and comprehensive ways. Archie Bunker was a working-class World War II vet whose bigotry was driven by nostalgia for a social landscape he understood. The world had changed around him, and he was clearly lost in it. He seemed backward and befuddled and cranky and old—all goofy malapropisms and unkempt hair. When he called gay people “fruitcakes” or his son-in-law a “dumb Polack,” it was funny because Archie Bunker was an out-of-touch curmudgeon adrift in a new cultural age—and many viewers had a bit of that out-of-touch curmudgeon in them, too. 

Archie Bunker’s homophobia and racism were genuinely representative of an American type. Nana’s bigotry is painted in such broad strokes that she seems less a person than a projection of the cable-news-talking-head cultural landscape, all made-for-TV flash and showmanship. Unlike Archie, Nana is attractive and well-coiffed and ruthlessly conniving. The insults she hurls are monstrous verbal grenades—“Your daughter has no business spending time with those candypackers in that Sodom and Gomorra fudge factory,” she tells Goldie. “I feel like I just ate a black and gay stew right before I fell asleep,” she says to David and Bryan’s assistant, played by reality star NeNe Leakes. “Look at them, proud as gay peacocks,” she remarks about a lesbian couple on the street. Her behavior is so extreme that it is hard to imagine that any potential viewers of “The New Normal” could possibly see themselves in her. 

And then, toward the end of the pilot, Murphy delivers the revelation that is supposed to humanize her. Her hatred of gays is rooted in a single hard fact: she used to be married to one. Decades ago, she walked in on her husband with another man. So there it is: the wound.

In the Ryan Murphy universe, every bigot has a backstory. Take Dave Karofsky on “Glee,” who tormented his gay classmate Kurt ruthlessly until it was revealed that he, too, was gay. Or Jane Lynch’s crusty Sue Sylvester, privately devastated by her younger sister’s Down Syndrome and eventual death. Murphy has his own “wound,” too: he grew up in Indianapolis, where he was tormented for being gay and performing in a choir. Like Kurt on “Glee,” he had a macho, sports-obsessed father. But where Kurt’s father is endlessly sympathetic, Murphy’s relationship with his dad was less smooth. “To be an artist for me is to get to express what I wish would have happened, what I wish my father had said,” he told The New York Times in 2010. So his shows are a kind of wish fulfillment in which all cruelties and prejudices are exposed, understood, and repaired.

But “The New Normal” would be far more interesting if it allowed prejudice to be closer to what it usually is: an attitude plucked out of the cultural ether, formed within a particular social context, not a concrete outgrowth of some prior, private experience. Archie Bunker was groundbreaking because he was relatable, even as it was clear that he really believed the terrible things he said. He was a true product of his times. On “The New Normal,” Nana says terrible things, but she is too clownish and hyperbolic to convince us that even she could possibly believe them. So Murphy explains away her homophobia with her biography. And in the end this makes for a much more benign kind of cultural statement: bigotry as a product of the personal rather than the political—easily pinpointed and surgically removed.

Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.