Sunday, April 17, 2011

TV: Exploding a stereotype

Gay men -- like all other people -- come in many shapes and sizes. Except on your TV screen. There, like many other groups, they are stereotyped.


We've long railed against that here, such as in 2005 when we tackled that alleged sitcom Freddie:

As the father of one of the children Freddie took to The Rocky Horror Picture Show arrived to confront Freddie, and to reveal his own homophobia, Prinze Jr. and Green tried to girl it up (which is the only way TV likes to portray gay men) and it was funny. It was offensive but it was funny because the actors had to really notch it up several levels since they weren't starting from a base of perceived straight masculinity but instead from an asexual base. (Oh the curse of teen boy pin ups.) Watching them flounce and argue over who was 'the wife,' was hysterical. Not because of the tired lines or stereotypes. But because it was so obvious that the pedi-set had somehow mistaken them for manly men prior to this scene. It was all about as convincing as George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" video.

Freddie aired (briefly) on ABC. Last Wednesday, ABC debuted Happy Endings with not one, but two episodes. And, at least a little, TV changed.

The publicity material we got from ABC declared that the show starred Zachary Knighton and Elisha Cuthbert but the episodes we watched featured only one star: Adam Pally.

Pally plays Max and, if he never does anything else, he'll now be a chapter in TV history not unlike Maude's abortion, Little Ricky's birth or Rhoda's wedding. Max is gay. Max is not like any gay character you're used to seeing on TV.

He's not flaming (basically ever gay male on a sitcom except for Will on Will & Grace) and he's not Will. We've long explained here why that stereotype was promoted by the entertainment industry. We'll give it one more go.

In the early days of film there were many stars and, yes, some were gay and lesbian. The Tom Cruise of his day (in terms of box office) was William Haynes and Haynes was gay. Haynes was also athletic and played athletic roles. The "pansy" was a film type long before the movies discovered sound and the primary purposes of that archetype was (a) to get laughs and (b) to promote the idea that gay was something you could easily spot. This allowed multiple gay and bi performers to be above suspicion. Silent film star, "Latin lover" and sex symbol Ramon Novarro (the original Ben-Hur), was nothing like Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn and others who played the "pansy" in the silents and early talking films, so therefore, Ramon or Haynes couldn't be gay. And having programmed America film audiences into what "gay" was, Rock Hudson couldn't be gay, right? He was so 'manly,' so non-Edward Everett Horton.

The construct worked as the ultimate closet and protected so very many . . . investments. (Did it protect gay performers themselves? Books by Richard Chamberlain and Tab Hunter -- among others -- would suggest that celluloid closet was about as healthy as the 17th century's iron maiden.) The hinges got taken off Wednesday when Adam Pally's Max (a) stole the entire focus in both episodes and (b) showed a gay man who was neither flaming nor self-pitying.

He's sarcastic, he's funny, he's as "Mac Daddy" as How I Met Your Mother's Barney and . . .

Maybe Max is best defined in the scene where Penny (Casey Wilson) advises Alex (Cuthbert) on the kind of roommate she should get.

Penny: You know what you should get is a real gay guy.

Max: Woah.

Penny: Come on, you're a straight dude who likes dudes. I want a gay who will watch house flipping shows with me and grab my boobs in a platonic way

Max: So you want a stereotypical, cartoonish, Sex in the City gay? That's offensive.

Penny: The heart wants what the heart wants.

Many years ago, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show ("My Brother's Keeper"), Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) was distraught because her brother Ben (Robert Moore) was hitting it off with her nemesis Rhoda (Valerie Harper) only to bathed in relief when Rhoda informs her there's no romance and Ben is gay. Max is another breakthrough.

And he's sexy as hell which presents the only dilemma: Is it good that Adam Pally's playing the part?

He's great in the part. He was sexy in the first episode aired Wednesday night with hair out of Doogie Howser and bad clothes (the second episode featured a much needed hair cut and a new manner of dressing for Max). He's funny. He's truly gifted in this role. (He's been funny in his previous work. He's never been on fire like he is in this part.)

So what's the issue?

He's straight in real life. (He's married, in fact.) Max is such a huge breakthrough that, yes, the sexuality of the actor does matter and a gay friend who makes documentaries forwarded us a list-serv where he and others explore whether Max would have been more revolutionary played by a gay actor or whether the fact that Pally is straight will allow Max to permeate pop-culture more than would likely happen if a gay actor had been cast?

These are important questions worthy of discussion and debate and they won't be answered in one day, one week or one month. Max is a game changer, to be sure.

And Pally's the breakout of the show. He's not, however, the only great thing about the show. Damon Wayans Jr. is from a famous and talented family which includes much more than just the father he's named after. As Brad, he's Brad. You instantly forget, even with the resemblance to his father, that he's Damon Wayan's son. He's a strong actor and the best scenes on the show are when Max, Brad and Penny are riffing. Penny is the other great thing the show has to offer. Wilson's fresh off her Saturday Night Live run and allowed to do so much more here than she was there. When they're riffing about gay husbands or debating the merits of the term "chicksand" or anything similar, the show is everything a sitcom could be.

Elsewhere? Eliza Couple plays Jane, Brad's wife. With Wayans, she's lifted to a higher plane of acting. With Cuthbert, who plays Jane's sister Alex, she's sitcom standard. Worse, yeah, we're going there, the eye brows. Someone needs to shape them and needs to do so immediately. She looks like an overgrown child (and not a pretty one) with those eyebrows. Pluck, tweeze, do something. Her forehead is not her best feature and those eyebrows draw the attention there.

They made over Max from the pilot to the second episode. But they couldn't do anything about Couple, Cuthbert or Knighton? Cuthbert can not wear a middle part. Her face is much too wide. She can zig-zag or grab a side part or no part at all but the hair needs to be fixed and should have been fixed before filming began. Cuthbert is supposed to be playing the Rachel (like Jennifer Aniston's character in Friends, Alex starts the show walking out on her wedding). If you're going to ape Rachel, give her a memorable hair style. And then there's Dave. Did Knighton just emerge from 1994?

What's with the flannel, the scruffy chin and above the lips hairs (which have a lot of gray in them for a young, leading man)? And how about the hair on the head which appears to have been styled by someone with a severe crush on Ren McCormack?

Along with failing to come up with a look for the two performers they meant to be the stars of the show, they also forgot that whining gets old real quick. If you're just meeting two characters, as audiences are Alex and Dave, you need to have reasons to find them interesting. Whining doesn't really cut it.

That was really driven home in the second episode when Dave had a one night stand that quickly became "chicksand" and he whined and whined and whined throughout the episode as he was unable to break up with her. More and more Dave reminded us of a scene from "The One With Chandler's Work Laugh" of Friends, where Janice (Maggie Wheeler) explains to Ross (David Schwimmer) that the magic is gone.

Janice: You're a very sweet person, Ross. Uhm. Unfortunately, I don't think I can take another second of you whining.

Ross: Let me make sure I'm hearing this right. You. You're ending this with me. Because. I'm. Too. Whiney? So you're saying I've become so whiney that I. Annoy. You. Janice.

Janice: Well yeah.

Ross: Oh. My. God.

And it was funny. Ross had become way too whiney. And Janice, of all people, being the one to point it out, whiney Janice, was funny. Funny is not Dave whining in one episode after another. Is he a grown up or is he a little teenager living at home with his parents?

Zachary Knighton's Dave was left by Alex at the alter. He was her groom. So he would be despondent. And we saw that when he was hiding out in his apartment, eating chocolate (the bride half of the chocolate bride and groom figures) and living in his bathrobe. That was established. And then we need to grow up and we need to move on. But Dave keeps being whiney and a victim. Not only does that drive viewers away from Dave, it also makes it difficult for them to identify with Alex because they're left to wonder (a) she was attracted to this or (b) she turned Dave into this?

Knighton, Cuthbert and Coupe aren't awful -- and Coupe's hilarious when she's opposite Wayans -- but not enough time has been spent figuring out the characters looks or their place on the show. While Wilson, Pally and Wayans regularly take the show on one laugh spiral after another, Knighton, Cuthbert and Coupe play characters as predictable as NPR's Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me Republican jokes.

And let's go there too because does no one but us wonder how the show repeatedly makes Republicans the butt of jokes? This week, they're ridiculing people who support Donald Trump's run for the GOP presidential nomination. Seriously? When one poll after another -- including the latest one by National Journal -- puts Trump in the lead among GOP voters? So NPR thinks it's funny not just to make fun of Trump but of a large number of Republican voters? And then there was the mocking of hair. Trump's hair? If you're covering TV and you're covering him, we'd assume you'd have to at least acknowledge it. We've certainly mocked it when we've written of his TV appearances. But to also make fun of Mitt Romney's? What's wrong with Mitt Romney's hair? And to portray him as vain and staring in the mirror?

Barack got mentioned. They mocked and jeered at the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, in order to lavish Barack with praise which was almost as disturbing as David Simon's bullying remarks about how he 'runs' things -- disturbing in the current climate where employees continue to lose rights. Mainly we wondered though if Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me was attempting to explain that NPR did not stand for "National Public Radio" but, in fact, "National Partisan Radio."

We're all for making fun of and mocking politicians. We just didn't realize you could mock only one side while taking tax payer money.

What does that have to do with Happy Endings? We're not fans of narrow views. Whether it's stereotypes of gays or stereotypes of Republicans. We're fans of things that expand, not narrow, thought. Happy Endings is a sitcom in need of some help. It's also the strongest one ABC has debuted since Cougar Town.
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