The American family is constantly changing.
If this comes as alarming news, you probably haven't been watching much TV lately. The latest television gold rush has been the quest to find the next show that will tap into the parenting zeitgeist. When ABC’s “Modern Family” debuted in 2009, it was heralded as the savior of the family sitcom – by that point sitcoms had been overrun by competing visions of what it’s like to be in your 20s, starved for a date and hating your job. So when “Family” became a massive hit, the message Hollywood took away from it was that there was an audience starved for nuanced depictions of contemporary family life in all its messy, frustrating shades.
Hollywood’s motto has always been “If it makes money, make more,” so after “Family” became one of television’s most highly-watched and lucrative shows, primetime became far more welcoming of ruminations on family life, provided they have a unique perspective. So this fall NBC unveils “The New Normal,” a new sitcom co-written by “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy about a gay couple and their surrogate. The Peacock Network is also rolling out “Guys With Kids,” a Jimmy Fallon-produced sitcom about a trio of fathers trying to embrace their roles as caretakers without losing their identities.
“Normal” is getting some of the best critical response of any network’s fall offerings, but has already courted controversy: the conservative group One Million Moms urged a boycott of the show, calling it a debasement of the traditional family. It’s a typically bigoted and histrionic response from a notoriously homophobic organization that seems to exist solely to protest things it finds disagreeable. But while it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that a show like “Normal” will cause a huge shift in the way we perceive parenting, it seems clear that these new family-themed shows have succeeded because of a shift that has already taken place. (The same shift likely responsible for the runaway viral success of Adam Mansbach’s children’s-book-for-adults “Go The F**k To Sleep” last year.)
So what are the themes of today’s parenting shows, and what are they telling us about how we perceive family and parenthood? Our guide:
The show: “The New Normal” (NBC)
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy famously wrote as the opening line of “Anna Karenina.” Pshaw to all that, says “The New Normal.” The brand new show’s lead couple, David and Bryan (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells), are well-adjusted, well-to-do gays with dreams of parenthood. But while Bryan is gung-ho, David has his apprehensions about being a gay dad. They decide to move forward after a trip to the local park helps Bryan demonstrate to David that there’s no such thing as “normal” when it comes to a family. There’s an older single mom of four, an interracial deaf couple, and a little person driving a pink Power Wheels convertible while her daughter rides shotgun. It’s enough to give the couple the push to find a surrogate in Goldie (Georgia King), a newly single mother with her own evolving attitudes about what constitutes a loving family. “The New Normal” bears out for gay parenting the same argument that’s been made for gay marriage: not only are gays not a threat to the institution, they may even appreciate it a lot more and take it very seriously.
The takeaway: Today’s traditional family is the non-traditional family.