Something unexpected happened this week while I was watching NBC’s “The New Normal,” which after four episodes has distinguished itself as the best new sitcom of the fall season. As the characters assembled around a table for dinner and began exchanging their sometimes combustible views on election-year issues, I suddenly started thinking about “The Draft Dodger,” an episode of the comedy classic “All in the Family” way back in 1976 that also featured a politically super-charged dinner scene that reflected conflicting attitudes of its era.
In the “New Normal” episode, titled “Obama Mama,” David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells), the gay couple around whom the series revolves, invited Jane (Ellen Barkin), the very conservative grandmother of Goldie (Georgia King), the woman who is serving as their surrogate, to a dinner party. This happened after a testy exchange about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prompted David to accuse Jane of being a racist and Jane to assert that for all their talk about diversity David and Bryan have no black friends.
“Just because I don’t like a man who wants to take my hard-earned money and dump it into a broken system, I’m a racist?” Jane asked. “Don’t you think it’s a little more racist to vote for a black man simply because he’s black? What about you two? I don’t imagine you’re lighting candles on Kwanzaa! Couple of hypocrites, like every other liberal. You walk the walk but you can’t talk the talk.”
There has been a lot of talk lately about how a show as frank and controversial as “All in the Family” could never get on the air today. With dialogue as unapologetically realistic as this, I think “New Normal” creators Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler are out to prove people wrong.
Later in the episode, at the big dinner party, it wasn’t long before liberals Bryan and David and conservative Jane were once again at each other. When another guest suggested that Jane must not think all Americans are entitled to affordable health care because she supports Romney, she replied, “If you can find affordable health care, more power to you. I just don’t want the federal government making decisions that are my choice to make.”
“Obama’s plan may not have been perfect but at least he tried coming up with a fix,” David offered.
“Yeah, by making me pay every time some illegal sprains his ankle jumping the border,” Jane growled. “Your whole system is broke, and your Obama just wants to keep dumping more money into it. It’s like giving penicillin to a Kardashian! Too little, too late.”
Jane went on to defend the importance of personal responsibility, revealing that 25 years earlier she stopped her own daughter from having an abortion when she was pregnant with Goldie by taking away her right to choose. It may have been the most impactful dialogue about abortion in a prime-time comedy since Maude Findlay agonized over terminating her middle-age pregnancy in a 1972 episode of “Maude,” a spin-off from “All in the Family.”
It has been entirely too long since I watched characters in a situation comedy get into a lively adult exchange about current issues or events that had any real merit -- that is, one that offered insight not only into both sides of the subject at hand but into the actual characters themselves. This episode of “New Normal” signaled that for the first time since the era of “All in the Family” we may have a sitcom that is going to explore hot-button topics through thoughtful story progression and balanced character exposition rather than largely one-sided preaching.
This brings me back to “The Draft Dodger,” an episode of “All in the Family” that also built toward a very revealing dinner scene. I remember feeling increasingly uncomfortable as I watched tensions escalate between the temperamental Archie Bunker and a soft-spoken man named David, who had dodged the draft to avoid the Vietnam War. David was having Christmas Eve dinner with the Bunkers at the invitation of Archie’s ditzy daughter Gloria and her liberal husband Mike. Also present at the table was Archie’s pal Pinky Peterson, whose son had been killed in Vietnam. Archie came to a slow boil – and eventually boiled over – when he learned that David refused to serve his country, which went against everything Archie had ever been taught and had ever believed in. Ultimately, Pinky put everything in uneasy perspective, telling Archie that his late son would want them all to sit and have dinner with David.
“The Draft Dodger” had everyone talking back in 1976. In my opinion, it remains one of the most powerful half hours of television in the history of the medium.
Nobody is going to look back on “Obama Mama” with such reverence. But there is reason to believe that if Murphy and Adler remain fully dedicated to making “The New Normal” the best it can be and if NBC continues to stand by it, their show might at some future time enjoy similar hindsight status as a topical series of certain historic importance. It’s off to a great start.