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TV dads are evolving from Neanderthal to superdad

Sep. 11, 2012 at 4:01 PM ET

Trae Patton / NBC /
"The New Normal" stars Andrew Rannells as Bryan, left, and Justin Bartha as David, a couple who are looking to add a baby to their family.

The two baby-faced gay fathers of "The New Normal" exemplify the new breed of television's trying-too-hard superdad. From "Modern Family" to "Parenthood" to "Up All Night" to "Guys With Kids," the sitcom staple has now become Dad as a panicky man-child in way over his head with adult responsibilities. Their sexuality takes a backseat to their desire to be Fred MacMurray; the real key to them is – and these dudes can't shut up about it – they want to be the family man. Unlike the sitcom dads of old – Fred Flintstone, Archie Bunker or Al Bundy – they're desperate to get it right.

The basic sitcom formula remains unchanged: You might recognize the kids (they are sassy!) and the moms (they are humorless-yet-wise tsk-tskers!) as straight from the cliché vaults, yet the megasincere dads are the ones who dominate. It's like cop shows, except the dads are now the wide-eyed recruits fresh from the police academy and the moms are their street-smart partners who grumble, "Listen, rookie, it's murder out here."

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Before reality TV came along, prime time was filled with dysfunctional dads. But these days, if you want to see a loudmouth jerk slobbering with resentment, you have way too many reality-TV families competing for your attention. Hell, even Fred Sanford and his idiot son liked each other more than any of the Kardashians do. If you get your kicks watching loathsome families chew one another to shreds, why would you watch a sitcom? There's always "Toddlers & Tiaras" or "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."

"The New Normal" is auteur Ryan Murphy doing "Modern Family," but upping the gay-dad ante. It's the crowning act of Murphy's American-family trilogy, which he began with "Glee" and continued with "American Horror Story," both nightmares about how horrific families are and how you'll lie, steal, cheat or kill to escape. Now Murphy ventures into the heart of darkness: the sitcom, which has always been obsessed with the idea of the nuclear family. This is strange territory for Murphy, who has specialized in revenge fantasies about wiping out Mayberry with extreme prejudice.

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At the center, there's a Los Angeles gay couple (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells) who crave a surrogate baby. Their designated womb-haver: earthy Midwestern gal Goldie. She already has a daughter from when she got pregnant at 15. As she tells the boys, "I became a mom in a Rite Aid bathroom." She also has a foxy grandmother: Ellen Barkin, kicking ass in the Jane Lynch/Jessica Lange nasty-blonde role. Barkin has considerably tougher comic chops than the rest of the cast, so she gets nearly all the laughs, spewing homophobic slurs like "salami smokers" and "ass campers."

"The New Normal" isn't brilliant comedy at this point. There are lots of speeches about what love and family really mean. But it's in a long, noble tradition of sitcom families looking to invent the new normal while keeping it as close as logistically possible to the old one. In the Seventies, that meant "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family," which were so outré they required theme songs that nervously explained how these single women got all these kids. Same with "The Odd Couple," which had to begin every show with a voice-over explaining that Felix wasn't gay.

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The next two decades saw an explosion of new-normal templates, with (expletive) loads of single moms keeping it together one day at a time. Those aggressively funky families still define the state of the art, from "Fish," with Abe Vigoda in a house full of racially polarized orphans, to "Diff'rent Strokes," where one of the kids from Fish plus another from "Good Times" get adopted by that capitalist (expletive) Mr. Drummond.

It's a long road from "The Brady Bunch" to "One Day at a Time" to "Modern Family." This is the tradition that "The New Normal" comes from: the history of the American family that sitcoms invented, and have been furiously reinventing ever since.

Do you think the portrayal of TV dads is evolving enough to keep up with today's fathers? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

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