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Television Review

John Goodman Stands Against the Narrow Minds of 'Normal'

November 01, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Prime time is a cave dweller that must always be dragged kicking, screaming and rubbing its eyes into the glaring sunlight of diversity.

So gay's the way now, thanks only to ABC's "Ellen," which begat NBC's "Will & Grace," whose popularity makes possible "Normal, Ohio," a new Fox comedy starring behemoth John Goodman as a self-outed homosexual whose ignorant father calls him a "big showgirl."

Among other derisive epithets, that is, in a series that slings one cheap gay joke after another. A couple are even funny.

Goodman is here after making movies and getting famous on TV as laudable patriarch Dan Connor of ABC's "Roseanne." He's a good actor, and without him "Normal, Ohio" would be pretty much worthless. His genial self-mocking wears well as Butch Gamble, who inexplicably has abandoned relatively tolerant Los Angeles for the bigoted Ohio hometown that he fled just four years ago after revealing to his horrified family that he was gay.

Anyone thinking of gay men as limp-wristed 98-pounders will find his physical presence alone an irresistible sight gag as he pops open a beer and watches sports on TV like one of the good old boys.

We meet the big gay gahoot tonight when he returns to Normal unannounced for a bash feting his son, Charlie (Greg Pitts), on the eve of the kid's planned departure for medical school. His jobless, boozing sister, Pamela (Joely Fisher), is sympathetic to Butch. But her daughter, Kimberly (Julia Mcllvaine), is nasty about his gayness, and her son, Robbie (Cody Kasch), fears it may be a family thing. Charlie and Butch's remarried ex-wife, Elizabeth (Mo Gaffney), also remain angry at him; his idiot mother, Joan (Anita Gillette), and especially his father, Bill (Orson Bean), see him as a freak deserving of constant ridicule.

Butch is as much a crasher in this narrow-minded realm as "Ellen" was in prime time when its lead character, played by Ellen DeGeneres, announced in 1997 to America--and to herself, finally--that she was a lesbian.

The difference is not only that "Ellen" was funnier and more sophisticated than initial episodes of "Normal, Ohio" but that Ellen's audience was able to witness her first steps from the closet and a lifetime of denial. There was context. We experienced her epiphany as she did.

Butch, on the other hand, shows up tonight as a gay accompli. He's been there, done that, but exactly how and in what manner isn't revealed. He's also someone so outwardly self-assured that he can turn snide--let's go ahead and call them ugly--remarks about his sexual orientation into straight lines for his own pointed wisecracks.

He's deploying this humor, we can guess, to diffuse the prejudice that confronts him. Just as "Normal, Ohio" uses Butch to deflate one gay stereotype, however, it nourishes another by periodically inserting home movies of him as a child wearing his mommy's high heels, playing with a tea set and ogling posies, as if male homosexuals necessarily desired to dress up and be womanish.

Not so pretty, either, is some Asian stereotyping in next week's second episode when the family discovers that Bill got some "international nooky" as a G.I. in the Korean War. We also learn that this tiny burg somehow has a gay bar, one that hasn't been bombed, no less.

The show's executive producers, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, can point to their blue-collar "Roseanne" as a sitcom that ultimately merged comedy with intelligent comment about an often-stereotyped segment of U.S. society. Yet it's hard to see where "Normal, Ohio" goes from here as it rides an assembly line of gags that trivialize the dangerous homophobia that they are meant to target.

Just as Norman Lear's infinitely deeper Archie Bunker character was softened when the "N" word was omitted from his vocabulary, Butch's father is an oxymoronic character whose bigotry is crafted for laughs. He is the real "fruit loop" here, of course, but not a very funny one.

*

* "Normal, Ohio" premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on Fox. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

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