He's proven time and again that he's a master at pushing the media's buttons and getting coverage for his shows, and the programs themselves reflect his relentless ability to attract eyeballs by any means necessary. Murphy's shows make a lot of noise, and to nervous networks worried about standing out in a cluttered pop-culture landscape, that quality grows more important every day.
But beyond the heat and the hype, is there anything recognizably human in these intentionally provocative shows? Are they merely constructs designed to gin up and savvily exploit controversy, a cycle that Murphy is able to repeat again and again while the networks haul the lucrative results to the bank? Or are his shows merely feedback loops designed to cynically challenge and then confirm viewers' least charitable impulses?
Those questions matter quite a bit when it comes to "The New Normal" (previews at 10 p.m. ET Monday, officially premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET Tuesday on NBC), which Murphy created with Ali Adler. More than any of his previous shows, "The New Normal" rests on the assumption that a broadcast-network sized audience will latch on to the emotional aspirations at the center this comedy, which tells the story of a gay couple and the surrogate they hope will bear a child for them.
The thing is, if viewers can't make real connections with the hopes of these characters, there won't be any Top 40 songs, latex freaks or plastic-surgery disasters to distract people from that fact (though I wouldn't rule any of those things out if the comedy's ratings are weak).
On the positive side of the ledger, "The New Normal" does have some witty lines and the cast is solid (attention "Real Housewives" fans: NeNe Leakes is surprisingly good as a supporting character). The comedy is a slickly made piece of entertainment, and the shamelessly sentimental moments aren't too eyeroll-inducing, thanks mainly to the skills of Georgia King, who plays a Midwestern surrogate named Goldie, and Justin Bartha, who plays David, the quieter half of the lead couple.
On the less positive side of the ledger, "The New Normal" features a whole bunch of Murphy standbys, which, if you've been following his work since "Nip/Tuck" premiered a decade ago, are starting to seem pretty threadbare.
Unsurprisingly, a laundry list of stereotypes are deployed and "abnormals" are mocked throughout "The New Normal's" first episode; it's like a season of "Glee" in concentrated form. In the pilot alone, there are disparaging or racist references to Jews, Chinese people, those who aren't thin and a disabled man; a woman refers to herself as a "whore," and Leakes' character comes dangerously close to being a sassy stereotype.
There's no doubt that Andrew Rannells' character, Bryan, is a compilation of gay stereotypes: He's fussy, superficial, obsessed with looks, celebrities, dieting, designer clothes, etc. Rannells does what he can with the character, but, in the pilot, the attempts to make Bryan something more than a cardboard cut-out seem half-hearted at best. It's hard not to fear for Goldie's potential child, given that Bryan views the acquisition of it as a form of accessorizing.
Where "The New Normal" really excels is in deploying questionable or flat-out objectionable attitudes and then (haha! It was just a joke!) "taking them back." The show gives most of the problematic lines to Ellen Barkin, who plays Goldie's unrepentant grandmother, Nana. Other characters call Nana on her unpleasant behavior, so it doesn't matter. Everyone can be bitchy, judgmental and mean, as long as they reveal secret pain later, right?
Maybe not. It's not just that, in the aggregate, all these comments create a mean-spirited tone. Maybe that's what the show's creators are after -- a cashmere baby blanket wrapped around jungle-red talons. It's not even that these kinds of moves allow Murphy to both take the underdog's side and briskly take down the underdog whenever it suits his purposes, which becomes dispiriting over time (and led me to eventually give up on "Glee").
Ultimately, Murphy's patented brand of ju-jitsu is tiresome because it's predictable. Murphy's creative philosophy seems to revolve around the idea that nothing succeeds like excess, and maybe that's true when it comes to deploying shocks on "American Horror Story." But "The New Normal" needs to work in a more linear and emotionally direct fashion, and there's not much about this NBC pilot, which is fueled by a mixture of cattiness and slick manipulation, that reassures me on that front.
When it became clear that the brittle, idiotic stereotypes of "2 Broke Girls" weren't part of a passing phase, critics didn't have a problem bashing that show, but a multi-camera sitcom on CBS may just offer a more tempting target. Also, in fairness, it took some time before it became clear that "2 Broke Girls" not only didn't want to fix its problems, but didn't think it had anything to fix. But I wonder how much of a pass "The New Normal" will get; it shouldn't get much of one if it continues to display a certain kind of sanctimony while frequently being ungenerous and unkind.
We'll have to see if "The New Normal" doubles down on its uncharitable impulses, but if past is prologue, we're in for a lot of fat jokes and cruel asides about anyone who isn't good-looking, well-to-do and white. Chances are a lot of the humor will continue to revolve around Nana's (tee-hee!) naughty racism, Bryan's judgmental pronouncements and the aw-shucks naivety of Goldie (what can you expect? She's from Ohio!).
I get that "The New Normal's" first duty is to be funny -- and it is, at times -- but, long-term, it needs viewers to invest in the lives of the central trio. We have to care about what they're going through for some the humor and all of the pathos to land. But is the show truly interested in exploring emotions beyond token scenes that might as well be labeled, "Here are people having feelings now"? That remains to be seen.