Family Redefines Fall TV

From "Parenthood" to "Guys With Kids," the fall season holds a mirror up to the American family's new normal
By: Joshua Alston

The American family is constantly changing.

If this comes as alarming news, you probably haven't been watching much TV lately. The latest television gold rush has been the quest to find the next show that will tap into the parenting zeitgeist. When ABC's "Modern Family" debuted in 2009, it was heralded as the savior of the family sitcom - by that point sitcoms had been overrun by competing visions of what it's like to be in your 20s, starved for a date and hating your job. So when "Family" became a massive hit, the message Hollywood took away from it was that there was an audience starved for nuanced depictions of contemporary family life in all its messy, frustrating shades.

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Hollywood's motto has always been "If it makes money, make more," so after "Family" became one of television's most highly-watched and lucrative shows, primetime became far more welcoming of ruminations on family life, provided they have a unique perspective. So this fall NBC unveils "The New Normal," a new sitcom co-written by "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy about a gay couple and their surrogate. The Peacock Network is also rolling out "Guys With Kids," a Jimmy Fallon-produced sitcom about a trio of fathers trying to embrace their roles as caretakers without losing their identities.

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"Normal" is getting some of the best critical response of any network's fall offerings, but has already courted controversy: the conservative group One Million Moms urged a boycott of the show, calling it a debasement of the traditional family. It's a typically bigoted and histrionic response from a notoriously homophobic organization that seems to exist solely to protest things it finds disagreeable. But while it's a bit of a stretch to claim that a show like "Normal" will cause a huge shift in the way we perceive parenting, it seems clear that these new family-themed shows have succeeded because of a shift that has already taken place. (The same shift likely responsible for the runaway viral success of Adam Mansbach's children's-book-for-adults "Go The F**k To Sleep" last year.)

So what are the themes of today's parenting shows, and what are they telling us about how we perceive family and parenthood? Our guide:

The show: "The New Normal" (NBC)

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," Tolstoy famously wrote as the opening line of "Anna Karenina." Pshaw to all that, says "The New Normal." The brand new show's lead couple, David and Bryan (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells), are well-adjusted, well-to-do gays with dreams of parenthood. But while Bryan is gung-ho, David has his apprehensions about being a gay dad. They decide to move forward after a trip to the local park helps Bryan demonstrate to David that there's no such thing as "normal" when it comes to a family. There's an older single mom of four, an interracial deaf couple, and a little person driving a pink Power Wheels convertible while her daughter rides shotgun. It's enough to give the couple the push to find a surrogate in Goldie (Georgia King), a newly single mother with her own evolving attitudes about what constitutes a loving family. "The New Normal" bears out for gay parenting the same argument that's been made for gay marriage: not only are gays not a threat to the institution, they may even appreciate it a lot more and take it very seriously.

The takeaway: Today's traditional family is the non-traditional family.

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The show: "Guys With Kids" (NBC)

After years of being portrayed as clueless, aloof caretakers, men have started pushing back against the pervasive cultural stereotype of the bumbling dad. Earlier this year, online backlash led Kimberly-Clark to retool a Huggies commercial in which the diapers were put to the "ultimate test" of the babies wearing them being left in the care of their hapless fathers. The new Jimmy Fallon-produced "Guys With Kids" seems to have grown out of the same frustration, as it depicts three friends (Jesse Bradford, Anthony Anderson and Zach Cregger) trying to prove their value as fathers, while still managing to be guy's guys. Bradford plays Chris, the dad with perhaps the hardest row to hoe, as a recently divorced dad trying to reboot his love life while proving his aptitude as a father to his shrewish ex-wife (Erinn Hayes.) To let this show tell it, women aren't the only ones who lose sleep trying to figure out how to "have it all."

The takeaway: Being a dad doesn't have to mean losing your identity.

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The show: "Modern Family" (ABC)

Though "Modern Family" started out being lauded for its depictions of different types of parents - stepfathers, gay dads and the nuclear family - it quickly moved away from those themes and has since evolved into a show about how familial bonds require constant maintenance, but the joy they bring is worth the effort. As often happens with quality ensemble comedies, new comic opportunities are mined by pairing characters in all sorts of combinations to see what stories can be told. With "Family," entering its fourth season, the result of this is that we see members of an extended family striving to create bonds with people they could just as easily keep at arm's length - for example Claire (Julie Bowen) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) who have slowly built a relationship in spite of Gloria having married Claire's much older father. The Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker-Delgado clan is not unique just because of its diversity. Their true uniqueness lies in their collective ability to iron out their issues and lean on each other, no matter how frustrating it can sometimes be.

The takeaway: Family works if you work it, and it's worth it.

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The show: "Up All Night" (NBC)

Reagan and Chris Brinkley (Christina Applegate and Will Arnett) are the couple everyone wanted to hang out with back when they had an empty nest, a period during which they probably would have mocked those parents who manage to work something about their kids into any and every conversation. So it takes some getting used to when, after the birth of their daughter Amy, they quickly realize how a little one sprawls out all over your life. Reagan works long hours as a television producer, while Chris is a stay-at-home dad, and both are torn between excitement about their new lives as parents and the old lives they left behind. This dynamic is best on display in the show's second season, particularly the episode "Cool Neighbors," in which the Brinkleys develop an unhealthy obsession with the new couple next door, who still live the life of Radiohead concerts and two-dollar shots they had to leave behind.

The takeaway: Having a baby changes everything. No, for real.

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The show: "Parenthood" (NBC)

"Parenthood" was developed from Ron Howard's 1989 film by Jason Katims, who cut his teeth with another television show adapted from a movie, "Friday Night Lights." The shows share the same idea: getting older can be brutal. It's a much different execution in "Parenthood," which enters its fourth season, with multiple generations of the Braverman family finding out how each stage of life brings its own set of unique challenges. It also features a story about raising a child with special needs, the type of story that hasn't been a focal point of a television show since "Life Goes On" ended in 1993. In "Parenthood," it's Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) raising their autistic son Max (Max Burkholder.) In a well-observed scene last season, Max overhears that his parents are giving his older sister Haddie (Sarah Ramos) $1,000 for college fees, and asks if he can have $1,000 too, not understanding how much time, money and energy has been invested in his development at Haddie's expense.

The takeaway: Growing up is hard to do.

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