The New Normal (NBC)–Now and Then

The New Normal – I love the title of this NBC show that premiered back in September, it says so much.  Makes you ask, “What was the old normal?”  Is there such a thing as normalness?  Having grown up back in the 1950s during the Leave it to Beaver and  Father Knows Best normalcy, I can remember a long parade of new television seasons where Hollywood tried to capture the new normalness of the American family every Fall for a half century.

(Some of the more famous shows about the American family from the last 50 years were My Three Sons, Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, All in the Family, The Waltons, An American Family, Good Times, Little House on the Prairie, The Jeffersons, Eight is Enough, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Our House, Married with Children, Full House, My Two Dads, thirtysomething, The Wonder Years, Roseanne,  Life Goes On, Family Matters, The Simpsons, Home Improvement, My So Called Life, South Park, That 70′s Show, The Sopranos, Family Guy, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, Grounded for Life, Two and a Half Men, Weeds, Big Love, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Breaking Bad, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Modern Family, Parenthood)

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But were Ward, June, Wally and the Beav ever a normal family?  ABC, CBS and NBC painted America as if everyone were WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestants)  in the 1950s, and even though my family was just as waspy, George, Virginia, Becky and Jimmy looked and acted like nothing we watched on TV.  America wasn’t lacking in people of color or various sexual orientations back in that black-and-white TV era, television just didn’t report on their normal day-to-day lives.  Some of those old gay couples getting married today were together back during the old normal.

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My parents were on the ass end of middle class, drank enough to be called alcoholics, fought and smashed things like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and my and I sister ran wilder than any switch or belt could control.  Although television didn’t chronicle my family or anyone I knew, I think it did influence American society, and may have even shaped us.  TV showed us there was no such thing as normal.  Have you ever seen your family on TV?

Conservatives might swear to God that television news is biased to the left, and shows like The New Normal and Glee are propaganda for the liberal lifestyle, but television news reporting and fictional shows have always trailed the changes in society – they have never led the way.  Television has always been the fantasy of how we want to live.  I think America has always wanted television to chronicle the countless types of people that we are, and the accidental byproduct of all this voyeurism was that we have adapted to diversity.  Real life strangers would flair up your xenophobia, but put that same subculture or ethnic group on TV and they became endearing.

Real life and television life seems to have some kind of reverb going, with television echoing changes in society and stimulating society with its feedback.  The New Normal is about two gay men, Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) hiring Goldie (Georgia King) to be the surrogate mother of their baby.  This arrangement is far from new in the real world, or even on TV, but it’s taken for granted normalcy is a way to convince all those Americans who haven’t gotten the memo, that this is the new normal.

I find The New Normal just as comforting and pleasant as Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet back in 1958.  These happy families, both then and now, make me feel good and wish all families were just as happy.  Like Modern Family, to which The New Normal is often compared, these and other feel-good liberal shows are designed to make us feel better about life in America in 2012, they are our Sunday School classes about how to be good people.  Our economic lives might suck, but at least we’re evolving as accepting and empathetic beings.

Sadly, this doesn’t work with everyone in our polarized society.  We’re still fighting the war between extreme religious belief and the Enlightenment.  I wonder what Descartes, Bacon,  Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau would make of our modern times, and what philosophical issues would they make out of our television shows?

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That’s the thing, I don’t think television initiates social change, but soothes us to accept it.  Many Americans don’t like gays or gay marriage, but as a whole, those attitudes are changing.  Last October, GLAAD released a report showing the 2012 television had the highest percentage of gay LGBT characters ever.  Not only are there more gay characters on TV, gay characters are finding more fans, and even the hateful grumpy people who protest their outrage are becoming fewer.

Television makes us comfortable with new ideas.  Television is an agent of integration, and I don’t mean that in just the racial integration sense, but in the integration of all change that’s going on in society.  Television is the spoon that stirs the American melting pot.

Television has been programming my social awareness since the 1950s, and it’s fascinating to contemplate all the changes the TV has made to America in the last fifty years.  If we had a time machine and could go back to 1962 and convince NBC to show The New Normal to America back then, how would it have been received?  Of course the show would be seen as a kind of science fictional view of the future.  There’s more new to The New Normal than two gay guys living together, and besides they did have gay people in 1962 so it wouldn’t have been a totally new concept, but they didn’t have surrogate mothers, or iPhones, video games, an African-American president, global warming, etc.  Change is relentless.

Remember, 1962 was before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  The pill had just been released a few years earlier and it still hadn’t made it’s social impact.  If you watch The New Normal it has an whole spectrum of liberal ideals integrated into the show that would have been overwhelming to the “normal” people of 1962 to digest.  On the other hand civil rights and feminism had already begun by 1962, so maybe the viewers of 1962 would connect the dots between then and now.  And even though America was a technological giant in 1962, I just don’t think those 1962 TV viewers had any clue as what computers would do to our society.

Today we have hindsight to see how far we’ve come.  All too often we judge the citizens of the past by the morality and political correctness of today, but let’s reverse the tables.  How will people fifty years from now look back on us in 2012 and will they judge us harshly?  I’m sure in 2062 there will be a sitcom that’s the equivalent of The New Normal, and if we could see that show today, how would we react?

Liberal education marches on.  Will we ever reach an end and be perfectly enlightened?  I’m sure the seeds of future liberal standards of political correctness exist in our day-to-day life now.  Our treatment of the environment and animals will horrify our descendants.  Our polarized politics and fundamental religions will make the people of 2062 scratch their heads in amazement wondering how we could have been so irrational.  Our wasting of natural resources will be judged criminal.  But those are the easy issues.  What are the harder ethical issues we can’t discern with our quaint old-fashioned minds?

What will be the next new normal?

JWH – 12/10/12

One Response

  1. Nice post, Jim, though I’m not familiar with that show (or very much of any television, in fact).

    Note that my mother worked when I was a kid, and that was far from unusual. Like many of the families we knew, she went back to work (as a secretary, which was pretty much the only option back then) when her youngest child started school.

    But that was not at all like what we saw on television, from Leave It to Beaver to The Dick Van Dyke Show. (Of course, our parents didn’t sleep in twin beds, either!)

    I remember watching a Doris Day movie where the basic joke of the entire comedy was that a woman was managing money! Funny, huh? Like a talking horse, I suppose. Except that my mother always managed the money for our family, including investments. Dad didn’t know and didn’t care what she was doing with it.

    Of course, I was a kid, so it seemed to me that television and the movies were far behind the times. Many elderly people, though – especially those clinging most strongly to the past – probably thought that they went too far.

    And for those in the middle,… well, I think that All in the Family did a lot to change my father’s views. I still thought he was racist, but he wasn’t stupid. He laughed at Archie Bunker, even though I was always thinking how alike they were.

    So whether television leads or lags probably depends mostly on where you are.

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