Ryan Murphy gets personal with ’The New Normal’
Ryan Murphy is one of today’s television great success stories. Beginning with "Popular" (in 1999), he has overseen a string of hits, including "nip/tuck" (seven years on FX) and "Glee" (four years on Fox). Most recently, he co-created with Brad Falchuk FX’s "American Horror Story," which was last season’s break-out hit and, with 17 Emmy nominations, one of the most nominated for next month’s awards show. If he wins, Murhpy can put it on his shelf next to the one he has already won for directing the pilot episode of "Glee."
So when NBC came to him for a new series, the out-television mogul decided to get personal.
"The show is loosely based on my life," he said recently. "It came about because my partner and I have been having conversations about surrogacy and met people to talk about it.
"I think if you watched the show and you read the scripts, we’re giving a great depth to this couple. It’s not easy to be a gay couple having a child. We deal with those issues."
His idea became "The New Normal," one of the highest-profiled sitcoms of the fall season. The show premieres on NBC Sept. 11, 2012. Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha star as Bryan and David, a Los Angeles couple looking for a surrogate mother. They find her in Goldie (Georgina King), already a single mother with an eight-year old daughter, Shania (Bebe Wood).
Goldie recently relocated to L.A. from the Midwest, along with her conservative-thinking grandmother Jane (played by Tony Award-winning Ellen Barkin). Also in the cast is "Real Housewives" alumnus NeNe Leakes as Rocky, who works for the gay couple.
A love-letter to families
Murphy pitched the idea for the series to NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, someone he had a relationship with that pre-dates his television career.
"Before I was a writer, I did garden design," Murphy told the Television Critics Association earlier this summer, "I designed Jennifer’s garden many years ago, so I’ve known her for a really long time."
The original pitch was not about a gay couple; rather, it outlined the characters and today’s multiplicity of families. "We certainly pitched the gay couple," Murphy added. "But we also talked about what it was like to be a single mother with a young daughter; what is it like to be a woman in your 50s who is completely starting over and dating again, having to go online. So we talked about a whole spectrum of characters. I don’t think it ever came up whether people are ready for it or not. We fell in love with the characters, and I think Jennifer did too."
Salke has been working with Murphy on "Glee." She called him "a guy who pushes the envelope." She calls "The New Normal" Murphy’s "his love letter to families."
A more nuanced approach
What the show represents is a more nuanced approach to the way we’re portrayed on television. Murphy considers it the latest step in the evolution that began more than a decade ago with "Will & Grace" and continued with "Modern Family."
"I think so many people that watched those shows have been educated by them," he said. "Those shows changed views. If we’re so lucky, we’ll stand on their shoulders in success."
One of Murphy’s goal is to embrace divergent points-of-view. The most controversial character will probably be Ellen Barkin’s as Jane, Goldie’s grandmother, who is a member of One Million Moms. Murphy actually drew on his own family for Jane.
"I remember Thanksgivings when I was growing up when my grandmother would actually say these jaw‑dropping things very similar to what she says," he related. "We would call her out on it. So it felt very familiar to me, and I think it will hopefully feel familiar to other people."
So is referencing One Million Moms Murphy’s pre-emptive strike against the group, an offshoot of the American Family Association -- which called for a boycott of "Glee" sponsors last year. If so, One Million Moms took the bait hook, line, and sinker.
The group is already calling for NBC to drop the show. "NBC is using public airwaves to continue to subject families to the decay of morals and values, and the sanctity of marriage in attempting to redefine marriage," according to the group’s website. "These things are harmful to our society, and this program is damaging to our culture."
It concluded that "millions of Americans strongly believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman. NBC’s ’The New Normal’ is attempting to desensitize America and our children. It is the opposite of how families are designed and created. You cannot recreate the biological wheel."
Murphy shrugs that he has been through this before, with "Glee." "I think every person in a group has a right to protest something," he noted. "But I always find it to be interesting when people take that position before they’ve seen it. I also think if they watched the show, they would love it, because for the first time, they’re represented.
"I think the show is funny," he added, "but I also think the show in many ways is about tolerance; and I think it’s about a discussion of tolerance."
Rather than simply making fun of One MIllion Moms, Jane will deliver their point of view "with sensitivity and a certain amount of veracity."
Culture war skirmish
Barkin’s character will talk about those issues that One Million Moms talk about. Although only a few episodes are anywhere near completion, Murphy plans on having Jane protest people and events.
"I think that’s great fodder for the Bryan, David and Goldie to talk to her about," he added. "I wouldn’t say that’s the thing I would lead with when talking about Ellen’s character, but yes, she is a member of that group."
The show has already caused headlines. NBC’s Salt Lake City affiliate KSL-TV removed "The New Normal" from its fall lineup. (Probably not coincidentally, it is owned by the Mormon Church.)
"From time to time we may struggle with content that crosses the line in one area or another," Jeff Simpson, CEO of KSL’s parent company, Bonneville International, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "The dialogue might be excessively rude and crude. The scenes may be too explicit or the characterizations might seem offensive."
Barkin tweeted her dismay with the station’s decision: "Shame on u @kslcom not airing @NBCTheNewNormal So L&O SVU (rape & child murder) is ok? But loving gay couple having a baby is inappropriate?"
She also tweeted One Million Moms to see if they wanted to discuss issues over tea. She told TV Guide that the group, not surprisingly, didn’t respond to her invitation.
"I guess their position would be, ’We know where she stands and where Ryan Murphy stands, so we have nothing to say to them’ and that’s what makes this country divisive," she added.
Badge of honor
Rannells wears the Moms boycott as a badge of honor. "Yay!" Rannells exclaimed. "I was very excited that I was mentioned by first and last name in the boycott. It was a real honor and a real treat. It’s my first boycott."
Rannells steps off his Tony Award-nominated run in Broadway’s mega-hit "The Book of Mormon" to venture into television. He sees Broadway as "sort of cyclical. I think that that happens every 10, 15 years that Broadway is newly mined for talent. So I feel very fortunate to be a part of this current wave of people. I am personally very grateful that Ryan Murphy keeps an eye on Broadway in a way that a lot of creators on this coast maybe haven’t."
The cast of ’Glee," he noted, includes several Broadway veterans. "The transition was good," Rannell said. "I love musical theater, and I love Broadway; but I don’t miss that schedule. I’ll be honest: It’s nice to have weekends again."
"The New Normal" is not Rannell’s first gay role on a television series, however. This past spring, he played Lena Dunham’s boyfriend on HBO’s highly-touted series "Girls." "The New Normal," though, will give the 34-year old actor his first network series.
"I immediately wanted to be part of it, even though there wasn’t a script," he related about "The New Normal." Murphy only gave him a general outline.
"As a gay man, it’s hard to find projects that you can play a gay man that it feels like it’s a fully developed character," he noted, "not just the best friend or the bitchy boss. This is like a fully developed person that I play. ’Gay’ is a big part of it, but the ’gay’ is also just a fraction of what I get to do in the show."
Hunky Justin Bartha, who plays Rannells’ partner David, is best known for his film work in two ongoing film franchises, "The Hangover" and "National Treasure."
When he heard about the new show, he also immediately took to it. "I just look to do quality," he said. "I was sent some television stuff that I didn’t think was relevant. I had read about Ryan doing a show with Andrew. I’d also seen ’The Book of Mormon,’ and I thought he was brilliant. So I called about them. I initiated it. It just seemed like the best-quality project out there, and I wanted to be a part of it, and I thought it was relevant. It talks about love, and it talks about real issues in a non‑trite way that is also entertaining. So it’s a show that I’d want to watch. And one I wanted to be part of it."
The New Normal premieres September 11 on NBC. You can watch the pilot at the show’s website.