Take a deep breath, and take a plunge. Broadcast television’s tsunami of new fall shows arrives Tuesday night, a torrent of sly monkeys, crazed submarine captains, redneck sheriffs, Jersey Girl lawyers, sexually overachieving doctors and, of course, the ever-present space aliens. The waters will not recede for another eight weeks and 21 shows, after which you can check the deductible on your bad-taste and stupid-cliché insurance.
We start with a couple of odd NBC sitcoms. What makes Go On unusual is its unlikely setting, a grief-therapy group. The exceptionality of The New Normal, on the other hand, lies not in its blueprint — a horribly botched clone of ABC’s Modern Family — but its pure, dumbstruck awfulness. Seriously — did any actual human being watch this before it aired?
In Go On, Matthew Perry gives TV another shot, playing a sarcastic sports-talk host named Ryan King whose radio station forces him into counseling after his wife is killed in an auto accident. Doesn’t sound like sitcom material? You’ll be surprised.
Go On is a kind of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest Lite, with unwilling patient Ryan playing McMurphy against a New Age Nurse Ratched, therapist Lauren (Laura Benanti, The Playboy Club). Dismissing her relentlessly yappy sessions as “wallowing,” Ryan needles Lauren at every turn, even organizing the patients into brackets for an I’m-more miserable-than-you tournament called March Sadness. (“Feline death beats human one! Our first upset! What a story!”)
Nobody is better at wry mockery than Perry, and his campaign of sabotage is often quite funny. But when the hurt wells up, Go On can also feel like a punch in the stomach. The scenes of patients at home, absently reaching out to stroke a departed cat or restlessly rolling around in a suddenly-too-large marital bed, make the concept of grief palpably painful. Beneath its estimable comic trappings, Go On is something larger: a meditation on what makes life worth living.
The cosmological implications of The New Normal, on the other hand, are limited to a reconsideration of whether television has a place in modern civilization. Executive producer Ryan Murphy has created some of the most challenging and innovative shows on TV, from the kinky Nip/Tuck to the piquant Glee to the disturbing American Horror Story, which makes his misfire on this show all the more remarkable.
Like Modern Family, The New Normal’s ethos is we’re no longer living in June Cleaver’s America — that households these days are a mix-and-match of ages, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. But where Modern Family is sweet and funny, The New Normal is cheap and hectoring, to the point where random dwarves, deaf people and politically correct totems turn to the camera to lecture the viewers that “abnormal is the new normal.”
Even when the show is trying to pursue a, pardon the expression, normal narrative course, it goes hideously awry. The plot — a gay couple hires a young single mother to be their birth surrogate — seems serviceable enough. But Murphy has chosen to people it exclusively with shopping-mall princesses.
Bryan (Andrew Rannells, HBO’s Girls) wants the baby as a fashion accessory; after seeing an infant during one of his epic searches for a pair of slacks that will make him look like Mary Tyler Moore, he exclaims: “Oh my God, that is the cutest thing! I must have it.”
His fashion imperatives match perfectly with those of surrogate mother-to-be Goldie (British TV actress Georgia King), who needs money for law school so she can afford power suits like the ones Julianna Margulies wears on The Good Wife. With intellectual depth like that, perhaps it doesn’t matter that Goldie is unaware that Bryan and his partner, David (Justin Bartha, The Hangover), regard surrogate mothers as “just like an Easy Bake Oven except with no legal rights to the cupcake.”
The portrayal of Goldie, if nothing else, establishes that The New Normal is rigorously equal-opportunity when it comes to being demeaning and superficial. And in any event, the fact that several of the show’s producers are gay makes it silly to suspect homophobia.
But I still wonder: Why do so many gay male characters on television have to be preening twits? Do gay men never get sick of seeing themselves represented as vaudeville caricatures? Not that straight people are going to like The New Normal any better: No social engineer could ever unite Americans across boundaries of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation the way bad television does.