The “Real” Normal: What ‘The Fosters’ Does Right That ‘The New Normal’ Did Wrong

By Megan Haas (@meggh11)

Television, the medium that is most accessible to the average person, brings us first-hand coverage of what is new.  Some television programs, despite being fictional, feel an obligation to put forth an agenda or create awareness for a real-world issue.  However, this can’t come at the expense of making the characters and storylines effective enough to keep the series going and entertaining audiences. Bringing awareness is great, but without the ratings to sustain it and an audience following it, that awareness comes to a halt because the show is canceled. This is exactly what happened to NBC’s series, The New Normal.

When The New Normal first aired, the message was clear: this was a show about a gay couple trying to have a baby via a surrogate and a woman who was at the end of her strength and willing to accept this new chapter in her life. David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells) ask Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King) to have their child. The show continues as they are with her through the entire pregnancy, and they eventually have a child. The premise was promising, and from show-runner Ryan Murphy, the creator of hits Glee and American Horror Story, the show was sure to have a following.

Where this show went wrong was how forward it was. The New Normal wasn’t about people trying to have a baby; it was about a same-sex couple trying to have a baby with most of society against them. The stereotypes were thrown at the audience repeatedly, and all we could do was sit back and be slapped across the face by them.

In 2013, society might be struggling to have everyone as a whole accept everyone, but we are aware that this struggle is going on. States are slowly accepting same-sex marriage. It was a topic in the last presidential election. Other countries around the world are allowing gays and lesbians to get married. In short, this struggle exists, but society already knows that.

Awareness, then, isn’t the problem anymore. Whether individuals support or oppose same-sex marriage, society as a whole in 2013 is aware that homosexual couples face a unique set of challenges. The issue now is acceptance. Therefore, throwing opposition back in our face is not going to keep audiences entertained. It’s television. The story is the basis that will keep viewers returning to shows. The ability to identify with characters across all audience demographics makes a show successful.

The grandmother, Jane Forrest (Ellen Barkin), was a clear representation of the people who are enforcing negative stereotypes and clearly against same-sex couples. At the beginning, she throws slurs at everyone that isn’t her.  This happens everyday in the real world, and people know that.  Audiences do not need to be introduced to these characters as if they have never seen people like them before. In television, things are sped up; reality is quickened so viewers are not bored and this reoccurrence of slamming the viewers week after week turned a show from progressive to boring.

Also, while a large segment of the audience can’t identify with being homosexual, everyone can identify with having relationships. On The New Normal, most people can identify with the mother/daughter relationship between Goldie and her child from a previous relationship, Shania. Some people can identify with the relationship between David and Bryan. However, when the characters’ sexuality and the message that the show wants to send are heavier than the relationship itself, it pulls away from everything that the series is trying to do. The New Normal did not allow audiences to see what is happening in the lives of these characters aside from the challenge of being gay in our society.

Now, over on ABC Family a new show, The Fosters, recently premiered. The pilot introduces characters, Lena Adams (Sherri Saum) and Stef Foster (Teri Polo) as two women raising a family of three. One child is Foster’s from her previous marriage to a man. The other two were foster children who Lena and Stef later adopted into their family.

When the series begins, audiences see Callie, a foster child who ended up in juvenile detention, being released. Unable to return to her foster father, Callie is placed with Lena and Stef. After an eventful first night, Callie’s younger brother, Jude (Hayden Byery), is placed with them as well. Although their situation is temporary, it is assumed that these children will eventually become permanent members of the Foster family.

What this show is doing right is that the awareness of the same-sex couple on the show is brought up, but it is not the main focal point of the narrative. It is simply a part of the show. There is not a conveyer belt of disapprovers continuously slamming Lena and Stef. The relationship is rocky. Stef’s ex-husband, Mike (Danny Nucci), is shown having had a hard time adjusting to her new lifestyle and co-parenting their son with Lena. He is still trying to handle it, but the argument centers on how the three of them are going to parent, not the fact that Stef is now living with a woman. Stef mentions in the third episode of the season that this latter reason is why Mike must be mad at her, but her ex-husband quickly says that it’s not. He wants to help parent their son and fix his hinted rough past.

In addition, this show portrays a real relationship. They are an average family: Lena is a school principal and Stef is a cop. They come home, eat dinner together – have a normal night instead of walking around being belittled by what seems like every single member of society, which was the reality that The New Normal presented.  In contrast, this is how The Fosters defines “normal,” making the viewer feel normal with it as well.  The family aspect is highlighted. This is the central focus of the series. From the moment the pilot aired, the three adults, Lena, Stef, and Mike, are trying to figure out what is best for the children. They are doing their best to make these adjustments as easy as possible on the kids. Nowhere in these three episodes that have aired has one adult suggested that the love between Lena and Stef is hurting the family. Simply having this relationship be part of the show instead of having it be a strange thing to see is what makes this work. Because the show’s message is subdued, it gives it a greater impact.

Also, because this show is on ABC Family, a youth-skewing network, The Fosters might be more effective at getting its message through. Portraying the normality of a same-sex coupling to this audience might have more of an impact than battering them over the head with preaching characters.

Although The New Normal had a good run and did propose the topic of same-sex coupling, it was too strong for a television audience that is already aware of the challenges. Whether they have seen the problems on other shows or they face it in their everyday life, they see it and they know it. Now the issue is having society accept it. Audiences do not need to be smacked in the face with the harsh reality over and over again on this type of medium. Absorbing the message into an already established story is how The Fosters will successfully send a message while keeping the series afloat.

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