Recap and review of The New Normal – Season 1 Episode 16 – Dairy Queen:
Well, this was surreal. It’s not like The New Normal hasn’t frequently tackled the problems faced by gay men looking to adopt or start a family, but it seems that, in lieu of tackling an issue of any real import, the series instead went grasping at straws to find yet another way in which Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) will never be traditional parents: their inability to breastfeed. Granted, the episode isn’t exactly bad, it’s actually quite funny. But much of what sets this show apart from other sitcoms is its heart, and the emotional aspects of “Dairy Queen” felt strangely unearned. I can appreciate that the episode didn’t want to be so on-the-nose that Bryan’s issue about being unable to breastfeed wasn’t actually about breastfeeding itself, but instead indicative of a deeper issue. But it still didn’t feel like something that warranted an entire episode of analysis, at least not as the A-plot, which is what this was. Of course, it wasn’t enough to sink the episode, and like I mentioned, there were enough of laughs to be gotten out of the premise to keep this from being boring.
Bryan realizes that neither he nor David will ever be able to share the biological connection that breastfeeding mothers share with their offspring. However, once Bryan discovers a contraption that will allow him to “breastfeed” his child, he gets carried away. The awkward device is like a bulletproof vest with baby bottles on the breasts, and Bryan seems to be the only person who doesn’t realize what a patently ridiculous look this is for him, or what a bad idea it is to count himself among the disenfranchised, breastfeeding mothers in their neighborhood. He goes so far as to rally the women in protest against a restaurant that asked one of them to leave due to her breastfeeding. This leads to the episode’s best, most terrifically off-the-wall sequence, in which the mothers protest via a choreographed dance number set to “Milkshake” by Kelis that goes on for way too long before anyone thinks to put the kibosh on it. It’s so wonderfully ridiculous that I couldn’t help loving it. Of course, it doesn’t last, as Bryan’s attempts to join in, with the absurd contraption strapped to his chest, leads to the women brushing him off. Bryan is an outsider, an interloper in a method of parenting he’ll never be able to partake in himself. When he confesses to David that his motivation is based, in large part, on his fear of becoming his mother, David is able to salve his fears by assuring him that he’s nothing like his mother. A subsequent talk with one of the husbands of the breastfeeding mothers leads David to recognize, more clearly, just how well-suited to fatherhood Bryan really is, while the sight of the husband feeding his baby with one of the male breastfeeding vests keys Bryan into just how silly the thing actually looks. It’s a very pat resolution, but also very effective.
The other storylines follow similar trajectories, though each one is less effective than the central story of Bryan and David (which is strange since, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t think the Bryan/Dave plot was enough to carry an episode as an A-story). Jane (Ellen Barkin) is still in pursuit of Bryce (John Stamos), who hasn’t yet asked her out on a date. This leaves Jane to do the asking herself, and though the date starts out well enough, Jane’s xenophobic attitude with a foreign food truck nearly has Bryce calling the whole thing off. His sternness and lack of patience for her disrespectful ways leads to a change in Jane, in which she acts on her best behavior. At least until she spots Bryce leaving the office, the next day, with a pretty young woman in a skimpy red dress, which brings out classic Jane. She goes on a tear, accusing Bryce of being the kind of pathetic, middle-aged man who looks for solace in his old age by seeking out the youngest woman who will have him, since only youth can ever count as beautiful to such men. But since this is Jane we’re talking about here, it all turns out to be a misunderstanding. Bryce actually loves going out with Jane, and the woman, Amber, that she saw is actually his twentysomething daughter. I kind of love the Bryce character, as it’s a man who knows what he wants, is firm and decisive in his decisions, and doesn’t tolerate negative, ignorant, intolerant attitudes. John Stamos is such a breath of fresh air in the role that I wish we’d gotten a bit more of him tonight, as there’s a confidence and clarity to the character that makes him a joy to be around, someone deserving of admiration, if not simply respect. I also love how his presence is affecting the character of Jane, who’s gradually reforming her short-tempered, intolerant ways. While I doubt she’ll ever fully turn the corner, I like that we’re getting something of a reprieve from her usual, caustic personality. This is to say nothing of what a good pairing Stamos and Barkin are, both romantically and as an on-screen comedic duo. The story just works.
However, I can’t say the same for Shania (Bebe Wood), and her myopic obsession with being fed breast milk, upon learning that Goldie (Georgia King) didn’t breastfeed her as a child. Some of the scenes produce some decent comedy, such as when Shania daydreams that having been breastfed would have led to her winning a Nobel Peace Prize and curing cancer. However, the rest of the story, in which Shania gets increasingly neurotic about Goldie’s basic parenting mistake in not giving her breast milk, with the girl going so far as to procure breast milk from an anonymous donor, is just too much. Shania, as we’ve been conditioned to accept her, always seemed, to me at least, to be a girl who would know better than to think that drinking breast milk would instantly make her a genius. She seemed more mature than to have such an outburst, to me. Of course, she is still a child, and I feel like the series is trying to remind us of this fact in subtle ways, essentially by saying that while, yes, Shania is a preternaturally mature child, there are certain things she isn’t going to be as mature about, even if it’s something as quirky as having not been breastfed. That said, it just didn’t feel right for the character to be so upset. It felt like a writerly intrusion, something that was written into the storyline just to give the characters something to do, instead of being written because it was an organic conflict for these two people to have. The whole matter blows over relatively quickly, and even though it’s tied directly into the breastfeeding plot at the top, it still feels like the episode’s C-story, so perhaps it’s best that the episode’s weakest arc is also the one of which we see the least.
“Dairy Queen” is a strange enough episode that almost defies reviewing. The New Normal is a sitcom that will sink or swim on its emotional resonance, and I just wasn’t feeling it tonight. However, the episode provided enough laughs to ultimately be worth the trouble, even if the emotional elements don’t feel earned, owing to the flimsiness of the premise.