Relatively Normal 

A new sitcom gives the age-old culture clash premise a new twist.

But on “It’s All Relative,” the two parents are dads. One is nurturing, a school teacher. The other is more stereotypical, a fussy and cultivated art gallery owner. Nonetheless, the combination must have worked, because the daughter they raised is a student at Harvard. And – in defiance of all that the Christian right so fervently believes about gay adoption – she turned out straight.

And she’s in love with a meat-and-potatoes guy who comes from a strictly conservative, working-class, Irish Catholic family that owns and operates a corner bar. It’s a match made in hell. Both sets of parents despise each other. That’s where the humor comes in – the clash of cultures.

Think Archie Bunker meets “Will & Grace.” With a little bit of the arch comedy of “Frasier” thrown in.

What’s groundbreaking about “It’s All Relative” is subtle, but significant. The humor is in the culture clash, not in the sexual orientation. Gays have been mainstreamed on TV to the point where their sexual orientation can function as merely a plot prop rather than as the center pole.

To be sure, there are stereotypical moments on “It’s All Relative.” When the two gay dads and the boyfriend and his barkeep father wind up in a skybox at a Sox-Yankees game, the two gay dads offer the boyfriend and his dad a soy not-dog and watch “Trading Spaces” on TV instead of the game. And, tritely, the fussy gay dad’s response to a death in the boyfriend’s family is to head for the kitchen: “My response to grief is always to bake.”

But often, hidden in the funny stereotypical line, is a zinger. The gay dads’ party-planner is aghast at the thought of a Halloween soiree without a theme: “Darling, if we live without costumes, the terrorists win.” When the two gay dads substitute as bartenders so the boyfriend’s family can go out of town, the nurturing one tells the bar’s straight regulars: “We’re here. We’re queer. If you want beer, get used to it.”

Funny thing is, the straight regulars do get used to it. And they wind up playing darts and singing karaoke with the two gay dads and their gay friends, and the bar’s cash register has its best day ever.

The show’s writers wisely keep the culture-shock angle at the forefront. The focus stays on the humor to be mined when working-class meets middle-class and all involved know that they have to make it work for the sake of the kids.

The decision was a wise one, because agenda shows and issue series don’t succeed: Audiences will tolerate preaching on Sunday mornings but not in prime time. The evidence is clear. “Will & Grace” is still an NBC centerpiece. “Ellen” bit the dust.

“Just presenting a gay couple matter-of-factly might be the most revolutionary thing we’re doing,” said one of the program’s execs in an interview with The Advocate. “They are middle class, they go to work, they’re not out dating, they are not always hot for each other, they have to cook, go to work, pay the bills,” he told the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine when the show debuted.

It must be working. Audiences like the show, and ABC has greenlighted it for next season. S

“It’s All Relative” airs on Wednesday nights at 8:30 on ABC TV.


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