On the long journey to Shondaland, TV’s Eden of diversity and normalization where characters of all races and sexual orientations are no longer marginalized or reduced to stereotypes, it’s hard to remember that many of the steps forward that have gotten us to this point were actually taken by TV comedies.
It was through the comedic bigotry of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, of all people, that gay stereotypes were first combatted on TV. Ellen DeGeneres coming out on Ellen is a seminal moment in TV history at this point. Joe Biden himself credited Will and Grace with the nation’s shift in embracing gay rights. Glee trumpeted the imperative of embracing and showcasing your sexuality, while Happy Endings reminded us that sexuality isn’t a person’s sole defining characteristic.
Very Special Episodes of slyly groundbreaking ’90s sitcom staples like Designing Women and Golden Girls dealt with homosexuality and AIDS with a bluntness it would take broadcast dramas years to catch up to, and, of course, there’s the timeless lesson-turned-catchphrase immortalized from Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
These are crucial steps forward we took together, laughing all the way. These comedies made points—some subtle, some landmark in their importance—that society then absorbed, was educated by, and, in some cases, changed its thinking because of. It’s confusing and sad, then, that One Big Happy, a new promising-in-premise show produced by Ellen DeGeneres, of all people, represents a step back in all those regards.
One Big Happy, which premieres Tuesday night on NBC, masquerades itself as TV’s next progressive sitcom, a modern take on the family comedy that supposedly proves that gay parenting is the new normal—taking the baton from the network’s last effort on that front, the canceled, more obviously titled The New Normal.
The setup is simple. Lesbian Lizzie (Elisha Cuthbert) and her straight best friend and roommate Luke (Nick Zano) decide to have a baby together, as they’re both single and in their 30s. But the same day Lizzie finds out that their artificial insemination worked—she’s pregnant—Luke marries his hot, British girlfriend, Prudence (Kelly Brook), after just a week of dating to save her from getting deported.
Married With Children…and a Lesbian!
As a sitcom, it’s as retrograde as it gets—a Three’s Company retread where instead of getting starkly different personalities, the characters get different sexualities. (Or, in Prudence’s case, an accent.) Hijinks barely even ensue, replaced instead by broad lesbian clichés and stereotypes that are only recognized as jokes when the unsettling, maniacal laugh track kicks in.
If there’s a milestone achieved by One Big Happy, it’s that we’ve reached the point where shows spotlighting gay characters, relationships, and issues can finally be as lazy, occasionally offensive, and unfunny as shows about straight people have been for decades now. Heh. And here we all thought “it gets better.”
There’s been much conversation in recent years, again thanks to the grand strides made by Shonda Rhimes, about identity and representation, to the point where there should be an onus on TV creatives to continue to craft their gay characters on a nuanced spectrum that more accurately reflects real life. One Big Happy, quite aggressively, does not give a crap about this spectrum.
Throughout the course of One Big Happy’s first episode, you learn one thing about Lizzie: She’s a lesbian! She says so three times in the show’s first 30 seconds. And in case there’s any confusion, Luke clarifies the level of Lizzie’s lesbianness: “BIG TIME!” There are sporadic references to things that could be hobbies of Lizzie’s—she may be addicted to The Container Store, and painting an accent wall in her living room gives her joy—but basically we are led to believe that Lizzie’s hobbies mostly consist of “being a lesbian.”
At one point, we’re given background on the history of Lizzie and Luke’s friendship, a bond so close they are now going to raise a child together. That background, loosely translated, is that she was always a big ol’ lesbian and, boy, did he know it!
“You’re smarter than you look. You knew I was gay before I did!” Lizzie tells Luke. “You wore a top hat to prom,” Luke deadpans in reply. “It matched my tux,” she says back, before adding, “Of course I should’ve known I was gay when I named my cat after Ellen.”
Later, Luke brings home Prudence for the first time. Lizzie goes into the kitchen and finds Prudence standing there completely naked, for no discernible reason. While naked, Prudence hugs and fondles Lizzie a half-dozen times, again for no discernible reason. This causes Lizzie to giggle nervously, both aroused and afraid, for no discernible reason other than she’s a lesbian and—look!—naked lady.
“Wow! Vagina right on my leg!” Lizzie squeals as Prudence embraces her. “I’m beginning to think you’re not a very good lesbian,” Prudence responds, indicating that, because Lizzie’s a lesbian, she should be more comfortable with a naked stranger’s vagina on her thigh. But she’s not! How funny!
Representation and visibility are important, as is not underselling the significance of a lesbian character as the female lead in a NBC sitcom. The radiantly charming Elisha Cuthbert just about whips herself into a frenzy to enliven the material she’s given, and the fact that she’s given the opportunity to do so indicates essential progress. DeGeneres lists as a reason to watch the show that “There’s a lesbian in it. People are curious, you know? They don’t see lesbians every day. I do, but not everyone.”
But the frustrating thing about One Big Happy is how it squanders what should be a provocative, resonant premise. There’s an admirable, necessary story to be told here about what does constitute, as the title suggests, “one big happy family” in today’s society. As we’ve learned throughout TV history, there’s no better medium to tell that story than a family comedy. Modern Family and its portrayal of the relationship between Mitch and Cam and their adopted daughter, Lily, and how the three of them relate to the greater Pritchett-Dunphy clan, speaks to that—albeit with not quite enough nuance for everyone’s taste.
And what about Lizzie? There’s a fascinating narrative—and a potentially charming and funny one, too—about a woman searching for happiness by having a child in a society that makes it difficult and “not normal” for her to do so. One Big Happy misses its opportunity to portray any of this in an edgy, forward-thinking, or otherwise remarkable way. The social politics (and the actual politics) of the topic at hand are dismissed in favor of crude jokes, broad humor, and sitcom tropes that were already tired by the ’90s, even before Ellen famously came out on her own show.
NBC is a network looking for viewers. Its last truly great comedy, Parks and Recreation, died last month with a ratings whimper, and no one is watching any of the network’s new offerings. But NBC doesn’t want another Parks and Recreation. It, at least judging by recent decisions—canceling Parks and Rec, passing on Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—doesn’t want the next great sitcom at all. It wants the next popular sitcom. Long gone are the days where, at NBC, those things weren’t mutually exclusive.
So NBC is going for broad appeal, and One Big Happy is a broad comedy in every sense of the word. Not every comedy has to be quirky, break the mold, say something, or have a political agenda. But when a series’ premise is as inextricable from politics and the imperative to “say something” as One Big Happy’s is, it’s a brutal waste for it to simply exist as a run-of-the-mill broad comedy. And when that run-of-the-mill broad comedy is as laugh-starved as One Big Happy, then there’s really no point for the series to exist at all.
One Big Happy is old-fashioned, obtuse, and a confusing entry in the canon of “gay TV.” And for once, there really is something “wrong with that.”