HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- In the runup to last week's Supreme Court arguments about marriage equality for gay couples and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, several culture observers remarked on the role popular entertainment has played in growing mainstream acceptance of homosexuals and their relationships.
Without TV shows such as "Will & Grace" and "Modern Family" and movies such as "Philadelphia" and "Brokeback Mountain," it's difficult to imagine a United States where polling now shows more than 50 percent of Americans support equal civil rights for gay citizens.
The changing tide of public perception should also make the time ripe for NBC's freshman sitcom "The New Normal," which wraps its first season with back-to-back episodes tonight at 9 and 9:30 on WPXI.
Yet, despite a decent ratings start last fall, the show finds itself on the bubble for renewal. This probably has more to do with NBC's prime-time ratings woes and the extended absence of "The Voice" than it does with the premise of "The New Normal." (Its lead in, "Go On," also saw its ratings crater during "The Voice's" December-March hiatus, though "The New Normal" fared worse.)
So we don't know yet whether the story of Bryan (Andrew Rannells, "The Book of Mormon") and David (Justin Bartha, "The Hangover") will continue beyond tonight's season finale that features the birth of their son via surrogate Goldie (Georgia King).
Created by Ryan Murphy ("Glee") and Ali Adler ("Chuck"), "The New Normal" has been a qualitative mixed bag from the start. The show is often outrageously funny and politically incorrect, particularly in scenes with Ellen Barkin as Goldie's tart-tongued, Archie Bunker-like grandmother, Jane, who can always be counted on for a rude, discouraging comment about Bryan's and David's sexuality.
"She has anti everything views," Ms. Barkin said in January on the show's set at Paramount Pictures. "It's nice to explore what levels fear can take a person to and how low you can really go if you're just living in fear of 'the other' all the time. To her everyone is the other, whether it's a gay man or an African-American woman or something from a foreign country."
Early on, Jane's presence as an adversary sometimes resulted in storylines with a strident tone, but through its first season "The New Normal" found better approaches to advancing an equality agenda without overly demonizing those who oppose such strides.
Last week's Boy Scouts episode offered a great example of taking a hot-button issue, staking out a position but not going overboard. David grew up a Scout and even attained the rank of Eagle Scout. So he was eager to volunteer with a friend's troop. Bryan thought that was a mistake given the Boy Scouts of America's rules that prohibit gay scouts or gay leaders.
"They kick out more gay men than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," Bryan said. "I can't believe you'd support an organization that excludes you."
"The New Normal" set viewers up to expect David would be immediately ostracized once his sexuality was revealed; instead one of the other scout leaders welcomed him. Eventually another parent outed David to BSA leadership and David was kicked out. But the scene where the parent admitted his complicity wasn't filled with anger, rather, it was just sad. The parent came off as more pathetic than villainous.
David, though crestfallen, vowed to fight for change.
"Loyal, trustworthy and kind -- when the Scouts can live up to the values they taught me, I'm happy to be of service," David said. "Be prepared, because change is coming."
Those involved with "The New Normal" say it's important to include such positive messages, particularly for the benefit of gay youth.
"It's very inspiring and very encouraging that we have teenagers come up to us, gay teenagers, who say that this is something that they strive for," Mr. Rannells said of the committed relationship the show depicts between Bryan and David. "When they see this relationship on television, it's something that they haven't seen before, and it's very encouraging, inspiring to show that."
"The New Normal" hasn't just been about a gay couple; its title also applies to Goldie and her relationship with her ex-husband, Clay (Jayson Blair), and how she's a single mom raising daughter Shania (Bebe Woods). The title also applies to Bryan's work colleague, Rocky (NeNe Leakes), who recently became a single mother when she adopted a child out of foster care.
"Shania has two parents who don't live in the same house. ... That's as much a new normal family as two dads," Ms. Adler said "We pull from what's happening in society and culture. Gay or not gay, we're just hoping to tell interesting stories that people relate to."
Not that everyone is willing to relate. The Mormon Church-owned, Salt Lake City NBC affiliate refuses to air "The New Normal," evidence that plenty remain who are not on the equality bandwagon.
But programs like "The New Normal" help raise viewer consciousness about social issues such as same-sex marriage.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.