By Ken Tucker
Updated September 10, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Trae Patton/NBC

The New Normal got a nice little showcase preview after the season premiere of The Voice on Monday night, and it is, in the manner to which we have become accustomed with productions mounted by Ryan Murphy, a briskly-paced mishmash of the well-performed, the extravagantly sentimental, the insufferably self-congratulatory, and the witheringly sarcastic. Plus, NeNe Leakes and a cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow.

In The New Normal, committed couple Bryan (The Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells) and David (The Hangover’s Justin Bartha) want a baby, and enlist struggling single mom Goldie (Georgia King) as their surrogate donor. Normal does a good job of sketching in men’s contrasted-for-comedy traits – Bryan is fussy and emotional; David is pragmatic and serene. The series adds frothy dollops of extreme by adding two valuable players who could not be more different: Ellen Barkin is Goldie’s genially homophobic grandmother, while reality-TV vet Leakes proves a finely aggressive comic actress as David’s office assistant.

Rannells, post-Mormon, is one of the hottest young talents around, and he does as much as he can with a role that co-creators Murphy and Ali Adler seem to have conceived as a cross between Charles Nelson Reilly and Rip Taylor; all Bryan is missing is a bag of confetti to throw at his costars after delivering a punchline. It’s to Rannells’ credit that he made the premiere’s attempts at heart-tugging, such as a home video made for the future baby professing “how desperately you are wanted” seem heartfelt.

I also very much liked Ellen Barkin’s performance, another small triumph over content. The producers have compared her character to Archie Bunker, but in 2012, even Archie would know he could not get away with the kind of gay slurs Barkin’s Jane spouts compulsively. Yet everyone acts as though this just the kind of silly stuff Grandma always pulls, instead of shutting her down, especially in front of Goldie’s young daughter (Bebe Wood). Giving this kid the line, “Nana, you’re a bigot,” didn’t make me laugh; it just made me feel briefly sorry for a child who has to remain within hearing distance of this great-grandmother. But that doesn’t mean Barkin doesn’t sell this material to within an inch of its creepy life.

As befits a network half-hour, The New Normal is tighter in pacing and structure than Murphy’s other fantasies — it’s doubtful this sitcom is going to go too weird or as slack as, say, Nip/Tuck, the mid-season episodes of American Horror Story, and the most recent season of Glee did. The show has a built-in narrative drive — Goldie’s pregnancy and the arrival of the baby Bryan and David are adopting. But that doesn’t mean The New Normal — especially if it continues to be hit with truely homophobic moves of which Jane would approve, such as the NBC Utah affiliate that’s not carrying it, and a condemnation from those idiotic One Million Moms — won’t turn into an American horror story.

Make Ryan Murphy mad, and he could turn this bit of froth into a frothing maelstrom: Goldie could give birth to a Rosemary’s Baby-style little devil — The New Abnormal — and really freak audiences out.

Will you keep watching The New Normal when it moves to its regular slot on Tuesday nights?

Twitter: @kentucker