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NBC's 'New Normal' depicts TV's gay America: male, upper middle class, white

NBC's new comedy The New Normal has received red carpet treatment, debuting over two days last week in a preview aimed at putting Glee creator Ryan Murphy's latest show before as many eyeballs as possible.

But Murphy's Normal, along with CBS' upcoming new comedy Partners, also made me wonder: Who gets to be gay on network TV?

Based in part on Murphy's own life, Normal tells the story of a gay couple who decide to have a baby using a bright-eyed blond surrogate looking to start a new life in Los Angeles with her tween daughter. Unfortunately, she's also trailed by an acerbic, bigoted grandmother — the always-excellent Ellen Barkin — who calls a lesbian couple "gay peacocks" and has an ugly stereotype ready for just about every non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual person she encounters.

Eventually, these folks all become a dysfunctional TV family of sorts. The couple at its center also provides a tidy vision of the gay characters network TV offers us these days.

Too often, it seems that vision is male, upper middle class and white.

In Partners, Ugly Betty alum Michael Urie plays a flamboyant gay character named Louis, a partner in an architecture firm. His best friend is a much more traditional, grounded heterosexual guy, just like the real-life relationship between the show's creators, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan.

This parallel — pairing a flamboyant, more stereotypical gay male with a more buttoned down partner — is a trope we've seen before on network TV, most successfully in the gay couple on ABC's hit Modern Family.

Kohan and Mutchnick offered the same match, minus the romance, on their pioneering sitcom Will & Grace back in 1998. But effervescent Jack McFarland and conventional lawyer Will Truman were always just pals; it was groundbreaking enough then just to have two gay characters in a show together.

In a country where just 54 percent of respondents to a recent Gallup poll said gay relations were "morally acceptable," it's worth remembering that homosexual characters like those on Modern Family, New Normal and Partners are still groundbreaking images.

But they also may have created a bit of a straitjacket regarding the biggest roles for gay starring characters on television, where they are expected to be well-off, male and white, like the men who have created them.

Here's hoping network TV finds a way to feature more gay characters who fall outside that narrow mold, so viewers can get used to seeing gay America in the wonderfully diverse ways it presents itself in life offscreen.

Your DVR getting warm yet?

On Sunday, we published our Fall TV preview, a giant-sized look ahead at the 21 new shows coming your way on the five big broadcast networks. But that's only part of the story. There also are lots of established shows coming back.

Here are three recommendations for returning TV shows you should watch this week, before the crush of all the other stuff clogs up your TiVo or distracts you.

Boardwalk Empire, debuted at 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO: Picking up months after Steve Buscemi's politician-turned-gangster Nucky Thompson killed former protégé Jimmy Darmody, the show roars into its third season toggling between two ideas: balancing the ruthlessness and violence Thompson uses to control Atlantic City's liquor trade in 1922 with his wife Margaret Schroeder's growing independence in a decidedly male-dominated world.

Toss in Bobby Cannavale's mesmerizing turn as unstable Brooklyn mobster Gyp Rosetti — in one scene, he beats a man to death for noting Rosetti didn't know the brand name of a popular motor oil — and you have a deliciously entertaining combination.

Sons of Anarchy, airs

at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX: As an outlaw fantasy on steroids, few shows can compare to this drama about a biker gang in California. Jimmy Smits surfaces in a surprising role as a self-described Latino "companionator" — otherwise known as a pimp — who falls for club matriarch Gemma Teller (Katey Sagal), and Lost alum Harold Perrineau percolates as a wealthy former leader of an African American street gang gunning for the club.

The show will never spend too much time considering the clashes of culture and race it throws together; this is, after all, a series fueled on breakneck action and viewer adrenaline. But seeing the show's Shakespearean tragedy of a storyline wind to its inevitable end is still well-played fun.

The Office, returns at 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC (WFLA-Ch. 8): Since Steve Carell left this workplace comedy last year, it has floundered. But Thursday's episode rebounds nicely, featuring Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute turning on a new employee who shares his drab, nerdy appearance but is actually much more normal. We see a cameo from departing co-star Mindy Kaling, who thinks a move to Miami University (in Ohio) means she's headed to the Sunshine State. And there's trouble brewing with John Krasinski's Jim Halpert, who feels boxed in by his married-with-new-baby life, taking a chance that wife Pam (Jenna Fischer) may not understand.

NBC's 'New Normal' depicts TV's gay America: male, upper middle class, white 09/16/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 16, 2012 7:52pm]

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