Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m here to talk to you about subtlety. Specifically, about subtlety and Ryan Murphy, which are not two concepts that are often found in the same sentence.
Murphy is the creator of (among many things) Glee, American Horror Story and, most recently, The New Normal, an antiquated sit-com concept that’s been massively updated. Despite airing in an era where all comedies are filmed using the single-camera approach (think The Office or Parks and Recreation) and focused on co-workers and their wacky office lives, The New Normal tells an old-fashioned story – it’s about a young couple who decide to have a baby and along the way must contend with their wacky family, zany co-workers and, naturally, a bigoted grandmother from the Midwest. The hook? The couple is two men and their baby is courtesy of a surrogate with a young daughter of her own. As such, all the old tropes about the family sit-com are there, just represented by a cast of characters that would not normally come together.
Who plays the nosy neighbor character? Hint: She's not white.
As you can likely guess, here’s where Murphy’s penchant for yelling when he could just talk becomes clear. If scriptwriting were like facebook, Murphy’s posts would always be in all caps. His characters don’t just exist, they Stand For Something. The messages of each episode or series are never hidden but worn directly on the heart. In neon. And then sung out loud. Be yourself. Be unique. You are special, no matter how ugly/wounded/non-white/gay/nerdy you are. When in doubt, you MUST cheat on your wife and then murder your mistress, burying her in the backyard so she can haunt you along with the ghost of your skanky maid. (Granted, that last message comes out less frequently.)
The New Normal takes all of these messages and runs with them. (Again, not so much the wife murder part.) Bryan and David, while both successful, committed and publically out gay men, still face prejudice about their lives and their relationship. Their surrogate’s grandmother berates them constantly for being immoral in an “it’s only funny because she’s old” kind of way. Adorable preternaturally aware moppet Shania voices every message about staying true to yourself in such a black and white way that if it were done any less over-the-top, children’s programming would be forced to pick it up. As such, for all its novelty in telling a story about two gay men that aren’t presented according to most stereotypes, this is still a show that generally screams when it should suggest.
And that brings me to the point about subtlety. In a recent episode, David, a former Eagle Scout in his youth, gets excited for the chance to volunteer with a friend’s Boy Scout troop. David spends much of the episode waxing rhapsodic about how important being a scout was to him growing up and how much he looks forward to sharing those experiences with his own son, now just weeks away from being born. We all know where this is going – halfway through the episode David learns that his Eagle Scout has been revoked after someone in the troop reported David’s sexual orientation to the Boy Scouts of America.
"Sorry, Jimmy - I'd love to be your successful, knowledgeable, moral template, but the person I love has a penis."
Though initially none of the other adult male troop leaders will own up to being the one who reported him (one’s excuse for why it couldn’t be him? “I would kill to be gay. So much more sex, so much less listening.”), one finally comes forward to tell the truth. When he does, he gives voice to one of the few positions that I’ve ever seen out of a Ryan Murphy show that felt like it was strong enough to stand on its own without all the neon flashing “MESSAGE” lights. The Scout Leader tells David that he really likes him and really admires everything David has – successful job, nice home, loving partner and strong family. The Scout Leader says that he overheard his son say that he wanted to grow up to be like David one day, and the Leader confesses what a good thing that would be – only with a woman, not a man.
“I’m not homophobic,” the Scout Leader tells David. “I want my son to have everything that you do. I just don’t want him to do it the way you do. I want him to be normal.”
In allowing a nice, compassionate and relatable character, rather than some frothing monster straight out of the Westboro Baptist Church, to make an argument against homosexuality, Murphy actually makes the most impactful argument for gay rights out there. The Scout Leader is kind, civic-minded and, most importantly, not evil. He really believes that homosexuality is wrong, but in a way that doesn’t look like someone who would want to beat a person up and leave him tied to a fence. It’s important to understand that the Scout Leader character makes this speech in a non-threatening, apologetic kind of way. He believes he’s the hero of this side of history, standing up for what’s right even against someone who he admires and respects.
"One of you denies me and one of you betrays me with a kiss. Er, I mean..."
In that way, it shows how ridiculous it is to hide homophobia behind phrases like “I’m not homophobic.” People who are misguided can be really nice, really thoughtful and really desirable people to be around. But “nice” doesn’t preclude “wrong.” The pivot to this more nuanced message was refreshing. It was Macklemore to Murphy's usual Lady Gaga. In fact, the subtlety of this message is so profound, that I was really surprised to see it in one of Murphy’s shows.
Though I don’t like quoting Bill Maher that often, I do really like one of his phrases: “you can’t become so tolerant that you begin to tolerate intolerance.” Which is a way of saying that we need to point out hypocrisy when we see it, but we need to do it in a way that doesn’t generate more hypocrisy. By making the homophobic character a nice one, not a melodramatic villain, The New Normal took a step toward doing that.
I hope the light hand that Murphy and company used in this episode is a sign that they can do more of it, especially since American Horror Story is a show that I started watching just to enjoy the train wreck that I was convinced it was going to be (AND. IT. WAS.) and kept watching because it turns out I actually really liked it. I’m a big believer that entertainment can be educational and, like all good stories, can be something that shapes those who listen or watch it for better. Here’s hoping for more opportunities for that from these shows.