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Dysfunctional families populate 'Normal, Ohio'

Saturday, October 28, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

John Goodman returns to series television in "Normal, Ohio," Fox's new dysfunctional family sitcom. That simple description makes the show sound like "Roseanne." It's not - in so many ways.

The comedy is broader and less rooted in reality, the writing isn't as smart, and Goodman's character isn't married. He's gay.

Goodman stars as William "Butch" Gamble Jr., who moved to California after coming out to his wife (Mo Gaffney) and son, Charlie (Greg Pitts).

Four years later, Butch returns for a party to celebrate Charlie's enrollment in medical school. Butch stays with his trampy sister, Pamela (Joely Fisher), and her two kids and trades barbs with his homophobic father (Orson Bean) and his concerned mother (Anita Gillette).

Butch's mom is in denial about Butch's sexuality and still hasn't told her friends why Butch left town. She utters the word "gay" in hushed tones.


"Normal, Ohio"

When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday on Fox.

Starring: John Goodman, Joely Fisher


"You shouldn't have to whisper it," Butch's father nearly shouts. "Our son is a trapeze artist."

"See, I knew we shouldn't have sent him to that wrestling camp," his mother frets.

How these jokes will play with the politically correct and gay rights groups, I can't begin to guess, but I laughed more than I expected while watching "Normal."

There are some funny lines in Wednesday's premiere, but they're too often dependent on coarse humor. Another episode sent for review is less funny - but just as crude - as the plot shifts from Butch's return to his father's infidelity during the Korean War. Oh, happy day, another TV show that's inappropriate for the 8 p.m. hour.

Goodman plays into some gay stereotypes in Wednesday's pilot (he sings showtunes, there's a minimum amount of mincing), but if you were to miss the pilot and tune in next week, you might not realize Butch is gay. Then again, I still get the occasional phone call from a viewer who isn't sure Will is gay on "Will & Grace."

This summer, "Normal" producers said they aren't trying to hide Butch's sexual orientation, they just don't intend it to be the focus of the show.

"It's about a man reconnecting with his family," executive producer Bob Kushell said in July. That was before Kushell quit the show and just after its premise got a complete overhaul. (Goodman originally lived somewhere other than Ohio and had Anthony LaPaglia as a straight roommate.)

This summer, executive producers Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner - they're still with the show - said they didn't want "Normal" to center on Butch's sexuality.

"We don't want to draw focus initially on his personal life, on his intimate life," Bonnie Turner said. "We are focusing on his personal life with his family."

The Turners also created "3rd Rock from the Sun" and "That '70s Show," which had well-defined, relatively original characters from the start. By comparison, the "Normal" crew are more stereotypical and have less heart.

"Normal, Ohio" has its moments, but too often the show suffers from SKS - Sassy Kid Syndrome. The children of Butch's sister are the culprits.

"I happen to be a very good mother," Butch's sister says.

"She thinks if she keeps saying that it will come true," her daughter Kimberly (Julia McIlvaine) sasses.

Clearly the idea is to make this girl who suffers from SKS like smart put-down queen Darlene (Sara Gilbert) on "Roseanne," but Kimberly comes off as just another smart aleck sitcom kid.

Even the "Normal" premise seems familiar. It's another fish out of water show with characters who leave the big city to return to their hometowns, similar to "Ed," "That's Life," "Judging Amy" and "Providence."

With sexual innuendo flying fast and furious, "Normal, Ohio" also follows this season's theme: Family comedies that aren't family-appropriate ("The Geena Davis Show," "Tucker," "Yes, Dear"). Even if that's now considered normal, it's not a trend I'm eager to see continue.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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