Recap and review of The New Normal – Season 1 Episode 13 – Stay-at-Home Dad
One of the things that sets The New Normal apart from other comedies on TV is its sweetness, which often borders on suffocating. Yet that’s simply the kind of show this is, and you either embrace that approach or you don’t. I’m in the former camp, as I find the charm of the series to be in how unembarrassed it is about its own sentimentality. Unlike a lot of other Ryan Murphy shows, The New Normal doesn’t undercut its charm with cynicism or sarcasm. Sure, plenty of the show’s sweeter moments are played for laughs, but often the sentiment is genuine, and it makes for a stronger show than it would otherwise have been if it had adopted a more cynical approach. This is all a roundabout way of saying that “Stay-at-Home Dad” is one of the best episodes of the show’s run, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the welcome absence of Jane (Ellen Barkin). It’s a series that advances the narrative of just how prepared Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) are for a child, while also showing how their individual qualities form a complementary unit that make them uniquely suited to starting a family of their own. Beyond that, however, “Stay -at-Home Dad” is simply among the show’s funniest half-hours, and that goes a long way in propping this comedy up as a cornerstone of NBC’s Tuesday night comedy bloc.
Since Bryan and David are as career-oriented as they are oriented towards starting a family, they set out to hire a nanny to help them with the baby. After a bravura opening sequence, in which they interview eleven prospective nannies, David ultimately declares that he doesn’t want their child raised by a nanny, suggesting that one of them should take over that role themselves. However, both Bryan and David want to be the stay-at-home dad, which creates something of a competition between the partners. They send Goldie (Georgia King) on a week-long spa getaway, offering to watch Shania (Bebe Wood) while she’s away, as a test of their readiness as stay-at-home dads. As one could have predicted, it’s not nearly as easy as either man was expecting. However, the storyline’s predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it generates some of the funniest sequences of the episode.
Bryan’s tenure with Shania drives him up a wall. He wakes up in the middle of the night, leading to Bryan having to lull her back to sleep with a bedtime story about the horrors of seeing Uma Thurman without her makeup in a Wallgreen’s at 3am. The next day, Shania gets him up before he’s ready (“7am, great, three more hours of sleep”), demanding he make her breakfast, pack her a lunch, and go over her homework with her before driving her to school. It’s the usual hustle-and-bustle of parenthood, yet there’s a pretty incisive bit of commentary once Bryan gets Shania to the school. He encounters several stay-at-home parents dropping off their kids, one of whom is a disheveled father whose breadwinner wife has lost all respect for him. If nothing else, this is an interesting comment on the inversion of gender roles in society, particularly where parenthood is concerned. The lesbians Bryan meets have it far more together than this father does, even though both parties represent an inversion of the typical gender hierarchy, where the woman stays at home while the man makes all the money. It’s a continuation of the theme that The New Normal has fronted since its pilot, that the traditional family structure of the United States (hell, of the world) is irrevocably changing, and one must roll with the punches in order to adapt.
Of course, if the encounter with the disheveled dad didn’t spook Bryan enough, he’s immediately overwhelmed by Shania’s neediness when she gets sick at school and must be sent home, getting indecisive about the brightness of the light in her room, or picky about the kind of soup he brings her in bed. She even goes so far as to make a list of increasingly ridiculous demands, in one of the best moments of the episode (“I need water”, “I need air”, “Sing me an esoteric Broadway melody!”, “What’s a vagina for other than peeing?”). Bryan loses it, and David takes over the next day. And, to his credit, he totally nails the whole stay-at-home dad routine, getting Shania up early, making her a hearty breakfast, going over her homework with her, and offering to look over her yearbook with her and pick out the surefire gays in the lineup. Unfortunately, David is perhaps too good at being a stay-at-home dad, overdoing it to the point that he doesn’t even realize he’s getting her ready for school on a Saturday. Cure a similarly disastrous afternoon caring for Shania, as David hosts a princess party for Shania and her friends, which is another in a long line of great comedic setpieces for the episode. The girls collectively become as needy as Shania, with David going so far as to counsel one little girl about her parents’ troubled marriage, among other moments in the montage, which culminates in the girls busting into his and Bryan’s room and sharing tastes of their flavored lube. Bryan and David set out to find a nanny almost immediately after these twin disasters, until Goldie returns and explains to them how their individual strengths complement each other, and make them fit for parenthood. It’s a neat, tidy conclusion to the arc, but there’s a sentimental resonance in how Goldie helps her friends to realize their preparedness for parenthood.
However, it’s not even the sweetest moment of the episode. That belongs to the resolution to this week’s B-plot. Rocky (NeNe Leakes) wants to be a producer, and asks Bryan to give her a shot at producing an episode of Sing, as producing has been her dream career since she was a little girl (she used to produce her own homemade version of Fat Albert). He’s skeptical of her ability to pull it off, but he changes his mind when she shuts down the temper tantrum of an actress on-set. Rocky goes on to become an outright producerzilla, a “Christian Bale in heels”, as Bryan later describes her. She terrorizes the writers and forces them to find a way to work the entirety of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” opus into an episode, while chiding the actors for the lack of believability in their love scenes (“The key to good sex is moisture! Even teen sex!”). She even extends this to the craft services table, canceling the fancy bottled water that the cast and crew had been indulging. Upon Bryan’s return from his stay-at-home leave, he discovers that while Rocky was sort of a nightmare for the cast and crew, some of her changes actually worked, particularly the bottled water bit, as Bryan is going to be receiving an environmental award for it. As a thanks to Rocky, he asks her to hand him a chair that’s behind her. As she turns to retrieve it, she sees the words “Rocky Rhodes: Producer” emblazoned on it. It’s the best moment of the episode, as Rocky’s eyes briefly fill before she resumes her tough facade. It’s there and gone in a flash, but it’s beautiful in its brevity, and shows that Leakes is a much stronger actress than she’s given credit for.
“Stay-at-Home Dad” is one of the best episodes of The New Normal since the series premiered. While the ability to enjoy this show often relies on your own willingness to give into its overt sentimentality, the show is still howlingly funny when it wants to be. This was an episode that balanced comedy with heart better than just about any episode before it, and it marks The New Normal as perhaps the strongest of NBC’s new comedies.