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The Trouble With Normal


The other night, I dreamed that I was dating John Goodman. It was dark out and I was holding his hand and walking down an empty road somewhere towards a parked car. Even in the dream I was surprised to find myself in this situation and for that reason I began interrogating him about the nature of his sexuality.

    

“Are you at least kinky?” I asked and he gave me one of those surprisingly convincing expressions his face is capable of.

    
“Oh, yeah,” he said, and chuckled.

    
“Right,” I nodded back. “That’s right. You were with Roseanne all those years, and she must be wicked.”

    
And then in the dream, my boyfriend, John Goodman, smiled. “You betcha,” he said, and right there I was flooded with something you can only call desire.

    
Which I think is a metaphor for this: it wasn’t hard for me to fall in love with the idea of John Goodman playing the role of a gay man on the TV. Goodman is neither fey nor TV’s idea of a sex object. He’s perpetually Dan Connor, a struggling Ohio construction worker who likes to bowl. The casting was so unlikely that it seemed to promise brilliance.

    
But this was before I’d actually seen an episode of Normal, Ohio. Now that I have sat through a few installments of the thing, my love for the idea of Goodman as faygele has dwindled. Normal, Ohio is what you’d have if TV shows could get into traffic accidents — it’s as if That ’70s Show jack-knifed into Roseanne, The King of Queens and a few episodes of Three’s Company all at once. In the bloody aftermath, only the studiest, most obvious of jokes, the most clichéd plots and the most offensive characterizations are left standing.

    
According to Fox, the show is about William “Butch” Gamble, a rugged, confident, good-natured, average guy (played by Goodman) who four years ago, came out to his family, divorced his wife and moved to L.A. to live the life. Now he’s back in his hometown and he’s ready to — well, I’m not sure what. I think Fox wants us to believe that Butch is ready to make peace with his true, Midwestern nature. He has supposedly realized that no matter how homophobic and hostile his family is, he needs to be with his mom and his dad and his ex-wife in the heartland. He finds refuge with his loving and busty sister Pamela (former Ellen star Joely Fisher) and his good-natured son (Coyote Ugly’s Greg Pitts). But hijinks don’t really ensue. Mostly Butch and Pamela counter Mom and Dad’s homophobic, prudish, cranky beliefs with eye-rolling and stale jokes that sink despite, or maybe because of, the primetime-friendly sexual innuendo.

    
The trouble with Normal radiates from many places all at once. Contrary to my kinky imaginings, Goodman’s acting doesn’t rise above the standard; it looks like he is in fact scared of being called a sissy, so he plays Butch as if he’s a cardboard character from a Saturday Night Live sketch, as if the entire show was one childishly homophobic schoolyard gag. Whenever the script calls for him to make a self-referential joke, Goodman bulges his eyes, bats his eyelashes and gets this flaccid, silly look on his face that’s supposed to mean he’s a Big Fag. If you look hard enough, you can catch sight of a glimmer of something deeper hiding in his performance, but that something never makes a sustained enough appearance to make Butch seem like a real person, not a collection of tics. Meanwhile, Anita Gillette and Orson Bean portray Butch’s homophobic Mom and Dad with a predictable one-dimensionality, and the rest of the cast is mildly interesting to look at, but only if you turn the sound all the way down.

    
You can’t blame the actors alone for the shallowness of their performance; after all, they have to deliver the lines they’ve been given, and the lines they’ve been given suck. Joely Fisher, for example, is a competent comedic performer — but even she can’t save a vacant scene in which she’s called on to seduce her son’s history teacher in forty-five seconds. And Mo Gaffney, who plays Butch’s remarried ex-wife (and whom I’ve adored since the days when she and Kathy Najimy were performing together off-Broadway), can’t save the show with her two or three lines per episode.

    
The uninspired jokes rely so heavily on sexual, racial and class stereotypes that they seem to have come straight from the All in the Family discard pile. For example: at the opening of the second episode, Butch’s father Bill is trying on his old Korean War army uniform in the middle of the wall-to-wall carpeted living room, in preparation for the Normal, Ohio, Founders Parade. Butch isn’t showing a whole lot of enthusiasm for the event. But that’s okay, Dad says, because “you people have your own parade — and I’ll be happy to miss that.”

    
“Why?” Butch quips back, wearing his best eyelash-batting homoface. “You could wear that uniform.” Minutes later, he and Pamela are standing around the coffee table practically competing over who can do the more obnoxious, me-so-horny imitation of Korean-accented English. Then again, all you have to do is hear somebody call Goodman “Butch” once to notice the idiotic obviousness built into the show’s execution.

    
Normal, Ohio isn’t really about gay folks at all — and that’s not just because Butch is the only gay character with a speaking part anywhere near the show. It’s because Butch himself is more of a narrative device than an actual character; he’s a foil against which to juxtapose the stories the show’s producers (Bonnie and Terry Turner, creators of That ’70s Show and 3rd Rock From the Sun) really want to tell, stories about the secrets that heterosexuals keep. Butch is cast as the homosexual superhero returned to Ohio to teach the local straight folks how to tell the difficult truths of their lives. This isn’t the first time a TV show has showcased this kind of gay-man-as-good-fairy lameness (think of the long-suffering Matt from Melrose Place). The producers passed up the opportunity to write into existence an intriguingly atypical, bearish, Middle American queer and instead created another wise, oppressed eunuch.

    
The plotlines of the first few episodes lean heavily on this conceit. In that second episode, having discovered that Dad had an affair during the Korean War, Butch cracks a few racist jokes and then takes his father to a bar where he convinces him to confess to Mom. Dad agrees to confess only on the condition that Butch comes with him.

    
“Maybe you can say some of that ‘The truth will set you free’ crap you laid on us when you went fluffy,” he cracks. And, rolling his eyes again, Butch complies.

    
“You owe it to each other,” he tells his mother, later, on the living room sofa, “to be honest and open about things.”

    
All of which makes me reconsider the meaning of that dream I had. Now I’m thinking that maybe it was a metaphor for my relationship to TV. “Are you kinky?” I ask the plastic box everytime I reach to turn it on — not in the sexual sense (after all, I don’t have cable) but in the creative sense. And, predictably, John Goodman — speaking for TV — looked me straight in the eye and lied.


For more Rachel Mattson, read:

Boygirl, Boygirl
Drive: A Suburban Mystery
The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”
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