New sitcoms make it clear that 'Leave It to Beaver'-style TV families are long gone

"Normal" isn't the norm anymore. Not in real life and not on television.

The so-called nuclear family -- a household that consists of the breadwinner father, the stay-at-home mom and one or more kids -- still exists, of course.

But there also are many families across America that fall far outside that description.

The new TV season reflects this, showcasing an ever-broadening definition of the word family.

The New Normal, which airs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on NBC, is about a same-sex couple that decide to become parents with the help of a surrogate.

Ben and Kate, which premieres Sept. 25 on Fox, features an odd-couple brother and sister, products of poor parenting, who are going to try to do a better job raising her young daughter.

And Guys With Kids, which premieres Wednesday, Sept. 26 on NBC, focuses on stay-at-home dads.

Suffice it to say that these TV families are structurally very different from the days of Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver.

"I think every family is an odd fusion of different types," says Georgia King, who plays the surrogate in The New Normal. "I think you find that's true everywhere, so it's great that we're exploring it."

Not everybody thinks it's so great, however.

One Million Moms called for a boycott of The New Normal, stating on its website that the show subjects families "to the decay of morals and values and the sanctity of marriage."

Then an NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City announced it wouldn't televise the show. The statement from KSL-TV was that it contains "sexually explicit content, demeaning dialogue and inciting stereotypes." A different Salt Lake City station has since stepped in and will air the show.

Meanwhile, back on the set of The New Normal, some cast members were angered, while others were frankly puzzled that the show could spark such criticism.

"We were a surprised and maybe a little disappointed that we were greeted with that," says Andrew Rannells, one of the leading men. "It's unfortunate, because I think people who have seen the pilot know it's a story about creating a family and the love it takes to create a family."

Meanwhile, co-star Ellen Barkin, who plays an Archie Bunker-like grandmother, is less measured in her response -- and she's quick to point out what she considers to be a programming double standard.

"I don't understand why a show that I happen to love, Law & Order: SVU, which I hope nobody is allowing a 10-year-old to watch, because it's about rape, murder and child slavery, is acceptable," Barkin says. "But a show about a very loving, committed same-sex couple wanting to raise a child is not."

Ultimately, of course, the controversy will probably blow over and the success or failure of The New Normal will depend entirely on whether people choose to watch on a regular basis.

"I think sometimes we forget to say that the show is a comedy," Rannells says. "We've been talking a lot about what it means politically or what it means socially. But it's still just a really funny show about relationships. I was attracted initially by the story, but also the humor is why I fell in love with it."

Bryan and David of The New Normal aren't even TV's first same-sex couple who've wanted kids.

The couple of Mitchell and Cameron on the Emmy-winning Modern Family did that first, albeit through adoption. The few times that their relationship has stirred up bad feelings, like over their first on-screen kiss, the protest has proved to be somewhat toothless.

We've yet to hear complaints about Guys With Kids, meanwhile, largely because it's just a goofy sitcom, but also because stay-at-home dads haven't gotten around to organizing a pressure group.

That said, Anthony Anderson, the star of Guys With Kids, believes it's high time that stay-at-home dads got more respect.

"There was a study on a news program I was watching, before we even shot the pilot, and they were talking about how stay-at-home dads are on the increase," Anderson says. "But a lot of people look at them and say, 'How could you? How could you send your wife off to work while you sit at home with your kids, being lazy?'

"It's seldom looked upon negatively when you say 'stay-at-home mom.' It's only looked upon negatively when you say 'stay-at-home dad.' Why can't this husband and father empower his wife and support his wife for going out and making a career, and the father stay home to raise the children?

"I think that's very admirable for any parent to do."

Maybe, in some small way, Guys With Kids is providing a service.

Ben and Kate, meanwhile, is an endearing comedy, similar in style and tone to Fox's New Girl, that embraces the idea that various forms of dysfunction thrive in practically every household -- and that a certain amount of dysfunction is not necessarily a bad thing.

"I don't think any family is truly normal -- that's an ideal that often doesn't really exist anymore and maybe never really existed at all," says Nat Faxon, who plays troublemaking Ben with a generous helping of arrested development. "With every family, there are a lot of issues that lie beneath the surface.

"Sometimes the dysfunction is right out in the open for everyone to see."

But back to The New Normal. What will America decide about this unconventional family?

"Hopefully it will be a conversation piece in family's homes," says Justin Bartha, the show's other male lead. "Hopefully people will have discussions about it. Possibly our show will help usher in a little more acceptance. I don't expect it to change anyone's life. I'm not saying that it's earth-shattering.

"But I think one of the wonderful things about television is that it can spark conversations, kind of those water-cooler talks that people will have the day after it airs, so it can bring a discourse into people's homes that wouldn't normally have those conversations."