I look forward to each fall’s slate of network comedies with roughly the same relish as I do a dental procedure. There are exceptions — “Modern Family” and “30 Rock,” though they’ve struggled to stay fresh, started strong — but episodic comedy is hard to get right. Which is why I was surprised to find the season’s best example of it at the movies.
“Sleepwalk With Me,” comedian/co-writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia’s meandering, terrifically funny story of his struggles with sleep and life on the road between stand-up routines, is episodic in structure, if not in distribution. The narrative arc is loose, rumpled by going in a few too many directions at once. I could tell you that it’s a film about his REM behavior disorder, which causes him to (sometimes dangerously) act out his dreams, or that it’s about trying and mostly failing to make it as a comedian, or that it’s about his troubled relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose, lovely as always). None of these descriptions is quite accurate: it’s all three in varying measures, with a little family humor and occupational misery thrown into the brew.
But the movie’s rough, unhurried narrative is the prerequisite for its impressive good humor. It feels a lot like the “This American Life” radio essay on which it’s based, less concerned with making a point than developing a theme — Birbiglia, the narrator, riffs easily on all manner of absurdities, slipping in and out of the plot as though recounting a memory over drinks. Best are the glimpses of life between gigs, the insular rituals of comics trying out new material, reminiscing, ruefully and nostalgically at once, over bombed acts and big laughs.
Willing to digress, to let the narrative hang slack for a moment, “Sleepwalk With Me” allows for unexpectedly powerful images to emerge, like a harried cell-phone conversation, covered in a long tracking shot through the fluorescent pall of a La Quinta Inn, or Ambrose’s gorgeous voice, plumbing the chords of an old standby to find a surprising sadness. Episodic comedy can sometimes feel like a cudgel, driving home its one-liners again and again — a surefire way to stunt your characters and wear out your jokes. “Sleepwalk With Me,” a film whose subject and characters I’d happily return to for thirteen half hours from the comfort of my couch, points to a different path: a wandering one, as aimless and effortlessly enjoyable as a talk with an old friend.
Speaking of cudgels, “Glee” stalwarts Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler’s NBC series “The New Normal,” which premieres tonight, is a pummeling of epic proportions. A good-natured, well-intentioned pummeling, it should be noted, inveterately progressive and wholly correct to remind us that “family” no longer means Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids and a dog. In it, Bryan and David (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha), shiny and successful, want to have a baby. Goldie (Georgia King), who had her daughter (Bebe Wood) at 15, wants to escape her ex and her miserable grandmother (a misused Ellen Barkin, doing her best Lucille Bluth impression — without the martini or the writing to back it up). But in a mere 25 minutes, these reminders pile up like welts: all is bright, optimistic, and painfully obvious, the themes purloined from “Modern Family” and bludgeoned as relentlessly as though this were after-school special.
As evidenced by Bryan and David’s park-bench conversation about whether or not their child will grow up successful in a non-traditional household, subtlety is not its strong suit. Three self-consciously “alternative” families play happily in the playground, and then proceed to address the viewer with a concise explanation of how such families “work.” In case you missed the point, though, Bryan swoops in with a nice little summary at the end. “Abnormal,” he says, “is the new normal.”
This is bad TV, but it’s also bad politics. In a way, the endless repetition of this laudable idea smacks of arrogance, as though the creators of “The New Normal” have forgotten that civil rights are won through struggling as much as smiling. Cultural landmarks, from “The Cosby Show” and “Maude” to “Ellen” and “Will & Grace,” are not without impact, but nor are they the sole catalysts for change in this country. From two of the minds behind “Glee” — which, despite its tendency to the saccharine, remains one the more honest depictions of gay characters on television — this faint taste of self-congratulation is disappointing, no less for their decision to present gay parenthood as a vain consumer decision. Sure, it’s meant as a laugh line, but all Bryan’s department store craving for a baby elicited from me was a wince. “That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says, as though referring to a sweater. “I must have it.”
Where “Sleepwalk With Me” takes as its subject something as quotidian as becoming an adult and roots around in it, making it roomy, organic, and witty, “The New Normal” takes as its subject something as grand as equal rights for all and makes it miniscule, simplistic, and forced. (This is pretty much the opposite of what we’ve come to expect from film and television, respectively.) By the time the pilot reaches its climax, a chaotic scene in a fertility clinic where Goldie plans to become Bryan and David’s surrogate, “The New Normal” has shrunk down the complexities of American identity politics since the age of Reagan to six stock characters and a few throwaway lines. This isn’t fleetness, it’s a failure of imagination.