Sunday, November 24, 2013

TV: Gay characters: Two networks stand still while a third retreats

This fall, Thursday night is the one night of broadcast TV that really acknowledges there are gay Americans. In some ways, that may be fitting since  it was on Thursdays that the shuffled around sitcom Will & Grace finally found a permanent home and many millions more viewers.  Will & Grace was a breakthrough in so many ways.  But for all the historic steps forward, there is still so many more steps needed for this journey.


Let's take the tour.  Gays and lesbians largely did not exist as real characters.  If they did show up, they may or may not have been gay but were assumed by TV characters (characters on every episode, part of the regular cast) to be gay and were the butt of jokes and stereotypes.  That we're talking about 70s TV is really appalling when you, for example, watch the Frank Sinatra film The Detective (1968) where Sinatra's detective had a far-more live-and-let-live attitude towards gay men and calls out other police officers who attempt to gay bash a group of men.  

As with most big steps forward in 70s TV, it was The Mary Tyler Moore Show that made the leap.  In "My Brother's Keeper" (first aired January 13, 1973 and written by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon), Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) wants to fix her brother Ben (Robert Moore -- who directed The Boys In The Band on Broadway -- among other credits and who was gay) up with Mary (Mary Tyler Moore).  Ben, however, befriends  Rhoda (Valerie Harper) who shares common interests.  Phyllis fears the two will fall in love and marry (a fear Rhoda has fun with).

Many 'critics' wrongly say the episode ends with Phyllis discovering her brother is gay.  Wrong.

Rhoda:  Phyllis, Ben and I aren't getting married.  He's not my type.

Phyllis:  What do you mean he's not your type? He's witty, he's attractive, he's successful, he's single.

Rhoda:  He's gay.

Phyllis:  He-he-he's what?

Rhoda:  He's gay.  I thought sure you knew, Phyll.  We're not getting married.

Phyllis:  Oh, Rhoda, I'm so relieved.

That's not the end of the episode.

You've got the last scene.  Mary and Rhoda are cleaning up Mary's apartment (from a party) while Ben sits at a piano.  As he plays the piano, a beaming Phyllis walks over and asks him to play something for her as she sits down on the bench with her brother.  He asks her whether she wants him to play his dog food commercial jingle or Mozart?  She tells him, "Play whatever you feel."  He begins playing and Phyllis sighs, "I love Mozart."  Her brother corrects her, "No, Phyllis, this is my dog food commercial."

That's not a throw away scene.

It's important and how typical of The Water Cooler Set (idiots posing as critics) to get the facts wrong and jumble the meaning.

The Water Cooler Set has repeatedly and wrongly insisted the point of the show is that Phyllis hates Rhoda so much that she'll gladly take a gay brother over Rhoda as an in-law.

That could have been the point of the show.  The last scene was about establishing that was not the point.  No one should have assumed that Phyllis was motivated by hatred for Rhoda.  The conflict between the two is always good for laughs.  But Phyllis is the most liberal character.  This is established in many other episodes with various causes (such as her efforts to end the death penalty).  Her character would never see a gay brother as a bad thing.  Phyllis would not just reject homophobia but would see herself as leading the way forward.  

The last scene is about establishing that Phyllis and Ben are still brother and sister as they always were. This is no trauma for Phyllis.  That's why they're on the bench together.

But even more important than that?  Mary and Rhoda.  The party's over and they're cleaning up.  They enjoy Ben's playing and enjoy his joke on Phyllis.  It's  a normal after party scene.


They are not pushing him out the door, they are not in shock that a gay man exists in the Twin Cities, they aren't bothered at all.

This was the most mature handling of the issue you had on seventies TV.  There was never an effort to say "fruit" or any other word.  Robert Moore was not asked to play a stereotype.  He was a fully formed character and not part of the entertainment industry's long assault on gays and lesbians (as we've noted many times before the 'flamer' or 'swish' stereotype of gay people was utilized to create an extreme vision of all gay people in order to aid many of the studios gay and lesbian performers in passing for straight.)

All In The Family, Maude and Soap would present gay characters.  They would use terms like "fruit."  It can be argued that All In The Family was presenting a working class view of gays and lesbians (the Bunkers were working class).  That may be but 70s audiences were snickering all the same.  Maude, always on a high horse (a point many miss today, she was the forerunner of Dixie Carter's Julia Sugarbaker) made everything all about her and her greatness and Arthur's stupidity.  And that might allow for the fact that gay people were not seen as people -- they were props for Maude.  

Susan Harris' Soap featured the first gay character who was part of the regular cast.  The hilarious Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas.  Dallas was part of the Campbell wing of the family -- the working class wing.  So his step-father's use of "fruit" might be excused on those reasons.  Soap was a parody of soap operas.  So Jody's storyline didn't necessarily make sense.  

Over the course of the show, he slept with three women (only one man played his lover) and  that may say more about the country's own struggle to recognize and accept than it did with the character himself.  (While he's involved with the man, Jodie prepares for a sex change so that he can marry the man.)

Jody was a huge step-forward in that he was a regular cast member, he had his own storylines and he was a complex character.  

Some people lie -- don't they always -- that Vincent Schiavelli was the first actor to play a gay man as part of the regular cast.  No, he wasn't.  

The Corner Bar was summer filler in 1972 and 1973.  The first summer it was 10 episodes and he was only in 9.  He was not part of the regular cast.  His character was also not part of the regulars.  He was a bar patron with no real connections to the other characters and only showed up to swish so everyone could laugh at the gay man.   The Gay Activist Alliance objected to the insulting stereotype and ABC insisted that if there was a season two the character would be less insulting.  There was a season two, Schiavelli's character was not part of it.

Billy Crystal was the first cast member of a show playing a gay character.  

While we give Soap latitude for Jody due to being a soap parody, we don't offer the same latitude for Dynasty.  The 80s soap opera was part of a landscape of soaps including Knots Landing, Falcon's Crest, Dallas, Flamingo Road, Bare Essence and many others -- some that only lasted a single season (Secrets of Midland Heights, Paper Dolls, Berrenger's, etc.) 

Dynasty featured the character of Stephen Carrington, an openly gay man played by Al Corely.  Corely was wonderful in the role, a great actor, a sexy man and not one of the idiots fretting, "If I kiss an actor in this scene, everyone will think I'm gay!"

In fact, Corely is the reason Stephen was gay.  The character was written as gay and during the first season, this was a big part of the storyline.  Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) accepted her brother but Blake (John Forsythe) refused to and attacked and killed Stephen's boyfriend.  Season two found the network and the producers wanting to make Stephen straight -- not confused, straight.  Corely fought back and eventually took it public (including in an interview conducted by Carly Simon for Interview magazine).  Stephen was gay, Corley pointed out in various interviews, and needed to stay gay.  The 'writing problem' wasn't that the character was gay, Corley pointed out, but that they made the character so morose.  

Corley's talent allowed him to turn it into a sexual brooding but he was fired for fighting for the role and for taking it public.  The next season, Jack Coelman would take over the role. Coleman had badly played a psycho on Days of Our Lives.  He had no acting chops to speak of.  He was not attractive in any way or form other than he wasn't ugly.  While Corley had a tight and compact body --  making Stephen TV's first sexy gay character, Coleman was boxy and insisted on a middle part for his hair that turned an already wide face into something even wider.

With Coleman playing Stephen, the character was sometimes gay and sometimes straight and mainly just pathetic.  Corley provided more passion in the goodbye kiss with Ted Denard (Mark Withers) than Coleman would do with the on-and-off-again male characters his Stephen was teamed up with during the 148 episodes Coleman played the character.  

In fact, Coleman's Stephen (he did not write the character) only accomplishment was probably demonstrating that there are some very boring gay men.

From the 80s, we move to the 90s.

Ellen De Generes came out in real life and on her sitcom Ellen.  This was a groundbreaking moment.  And the record ratings for that season ender were never going to happen again -- this was event TV.  However, every week wouldn't be event TV.  ABC knew that.  Ellen knew that.  And season five found high ratings for the show.  Despite a warning label before each episode aired, the show got strong ratings.  

Then Chasity Bono had to open her big mouth.

Chastity is now Chaz having had gender reassignment surgery.

For some unknown reason, after being outed by The National Enquirer,  Bono thought himself the voice of lesbianism and the voice of gay America.

In that role, Bono issued rulings such as declaring that Mel Gibson wasn't homophobic or that Tom Cruise was straight.  In other words, whenever the industry needed a whore, there was Bono.

Chastity Bono's only 'work' experience in the industry was being Cher's daughter and sometimes appearing on one of her mother's variety shows.  

But somehow this Christina Crawford wannabe decided she was an expert on TV and writing and on everything.   And to share her infinite wisdom due to being 29-years-old and forced-out-of-the-closet, Bono appeared on The Tonight Show and told Jay Leno that Ellen was "too gay for TV."

She didn't just say that on TV, she told Variety it as well.  Glen Lovell reported:

It’s one thing for the critical establishment to carp about ”Ellen’s” rigid gay-ness, but when a well known lesbian activist does it -- well, that’s news. 
[. . .]
If ”Ellen” is going to be picked up for a sixth season by ABC, the creators need to slow down — ”take smaller steps” and chart a more moderate path, ad-vises the 29 year old daughter of Sonny Bono and Cher. ”(‘Ellen’) is so gay it’s excluding a large part of our society,” Bono tells Variety. 
”A lot of the stuff on it is somewhat of an inside joke. It’s one thing to have a gay lead character, but it’s another when every episode deals with pretty specific gay issues.”

Anne Heche, who was then Ellen's live-in love, was rightfully outraged by Bono's remarks.

Chastity lacked the spine to either stand by her remarks or apologize.  So, instead, she insisted she was misquoted.  Even when Anne confronted her to her face, Chastity couldn't own up to what she did.

And the show wasn't 'too gay.'  The character Ellen was now out.  Every episode was not about being gay but many of them acknowledged that Ellen was.  For example, Clea Lewis' Audrey was hoping Ellen would meet her match when they went to a festival.  Was that "too gay"?  Was it "too gay" when Ellen participated in a Civil War re-enactment or when she got a job at a radio station?

Please, Wise Chastity Bono, the voice of lesbianism, tell us when Ellen was "too gay"?

Oops.  Sorry.  We waited too long.  You're no longer a lesbian, you're now a man who sleeps with women.  In fact, you've always been a man on the inside.

So maybe children of stars should actually be required to accomplish something on their own in their own lives before they're treated as informed or experts?

What Bono did, in the self-appointed role of Voice of Gay America, was to give ABC the ammunition to cancel Ellen.  For season five, it was ranked 42 out of all the programs aired on prime time broadcast TV.  Chasity Bono chose to call Ellen "too gay" when the show was in danger of the axe.  Not because of bad ratings (by that time, the show was down to 10 million viewers for each episode) but because of the campaign against the show by homophobic groups.  The Human Rights Campaign had launched an effort to save the show and that's when Bono waded in with "too gay" -- declared on NBC and to the entertainment industry bible Variety.

When 20th century gay history is told, Bono the big mouth needs to be noted.

ABC had a hit show -- yes, ten million viewers was a hit show -- that was causing them problems with homophobic groups.  The idiotic show that replaced Ellen, Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place would be noted for blandness, no one ever objected.  And ABC was under no pressure from anyone with that show.  So when it's season one ratings dropped to 10 million in season three, it was given another season.  In fact, that bland show only got the axe when it fell to six million viewers.

But Ellen was taken off while getting nearly twice that many viewers.

Ellen De Generes'  lasting artistic contribution from the 90s is the character of Ellen whose lesson was that life begins with coming out.

Not even vile Bono can take that away.

Into the hell Chaz had created for TV gays came Will & Grace.

This was the next breakthrough.  You had two gay characters and Karen.

Will was Eric McCormack, Grace was Debra Messing.  They were two best friends who met in college, were wrongly engaged for nearly twenty minutes until Will came out to her.  Will's other best friend was Jack played by Sean Hayes.  And then there was Karen, played by Megan Mullally, whose sexuality was more fluid than anyone to ever appear on prime time.

Married to Stanley Walker, Karen, a socialite and a porn actress (Dirty Little Pig Boy),  was frequently coming on to Grace, often referring to same-sex experiences she had in college, coming on to Diane (Mira Sorvino), sleeping with Malcolm (Alec Baldwin), wanting to do some heavy petting with Liz (guest star Madonna) . . .  And it all goes back to her first love (from "Something Borrowed,  Someone's Due" written by Kari Lizer, Adam Barr and Bill Wrubel):

The last town we lived in, I fell in love with a boy. Heh. He had long blond hair, delicate features, soft skin... At least I think it was a boy. Well, anyway, I was in love. And he or she loved me. Until my mom scammed her, too. Then he left me. That was when I left home and never looked back.

It started off tentative.  Baby steps in the climate Bono had helped create.  Will was mooning over the unseen boyfriend for season one, Jack's love life existed off screen.  When the same-sex kiss finally came on the show it was between Will and Jack (Will was not attracted to Jack) and done by them on The Today Show (to be clear, in the episode, Will and Jack were on The Today Show) after NBC had refused to allow two men to kiss (in the episode, the storyline is that NBC is refusing to air a same-sex kiss). Romance would come more slowly onscreen for Will and for Jack.

Will would finally get three serious boyfriends James (Taye Diggs), Matthew (Patrick Dempsey) and Vince (Bobby Cannavale).while Jack would have one longterm relationship with Stuart (Dave Foley). And maybe it can even be argued that the limited physical moments between two men on the show contrasted with Grace grinding against guest stars Gregory Hines, Woody Harrelson, Ed Burns, Corey Parker, Matt Damon or whomever helped underscore the inequality in the country?

Will & Grace was one of the finest Thursday night sitcoms NBC aired before it ended its golden age and good ratings.  Endorsing marriage equality, Vice President Joe Biden declared in May 16, 2012 on NBC's Meet The Press, "I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far.  People fear that which is different.  Now they're beginning to understand."  It made a mark as a comedy and it made a mark as history.

Since it ceased production, there's been only one real step forward.

The ABC sitcom Happy Endings ran for three seasons and Adam Pally's Max was a real breakthrough. The show was hilarious, Max was not a stereotype, he had physical scenes with men he was attracted to and he was given some very interesting boyfriends (such as Grant played by James Wolk).

But that was it.  That was the only step forward after Will & Grace went off the air.

Modern Family's Cam and Mitchell?  The two non-sexual gays?

'But they're married!'

So are Claire and Phil and that doesn't stop all their sex story lines.  Equally true, Phil and Claire aren't always insulting each other the way Mitchell always insults Cam.  Clair and Phil seem like they're married while Cam and Mitchell are played as a long running gag.

"Well, to be indelicate, Cam is overweight."

And only skinny people have sex?  And the leads in Molly & Mike are what, heroin chic, anorexic?

In the fall of last year, two networks had a chance to step forward.

NBC went with The New Normal.

Politics killed the show.

No, not 'gay' politics.  The politics of hatred, the politics of elitism, the politics of never-shut-up.  Ellen Barkin's hateful Tweets overshadowed the series.  The country didn't need to know what a second banana in a sitcom thought of every piece of legislation or statement by a Republican member of Congress 'really meant.'  It was bad enough that Barkin's character was dragging down the show -- her scenes were always the weakest moments of any episode -- there was also her never-ending attacks on Republicans.

Barkin's Tweets meant you couldn't enjoy the show.  The attacks on her conservative character (Jane) from other characters might have seemed funny exchanges but with Barkin's endless Tweets against Republicans, it just seemed like a never ending attack.

As MSNBC's ratings demonstrate, politics doesn't pull in a lot of viewers.

And that's too bad because Andrew Rannells (Bryan) and Justin Bartha (David) had real chemistry onscreen, NeNe Leakes was amazing and Georgia King's Goldie got better with each episode.

While Barkin personally destroyed everyone's chances and turned The New Normal into a one season sitcom, CBS did far worse.  In fact, we're still surprised by the homophobia CBS got away with and gets away with.

Partners was a very funny sitcom that CBS axed after six episode.  The show, created by Will & Grace's creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, starred Michael Urie and David Krumholtz as two best friends and business partners with Brandon Routh and Sophia Bush as their significant others.  As the issue of marriage equality was set to bubble up, the already panicky CBS axed the show.

And apparently we're the only two people in the world who're going to object?

Just like we have some special power we didn't know about but that allows us to see Kalinda, the lesbian character on The Good Wife, has transitioned beyond bi into straight.  It happened last season and ir's taking place again this season. Why is it that Kalinda can no longer be gay?  And hadn't we finally gotten beyond the nervous twitches of Dynasty?  Hadn't we finally gotten to the point when networks could accept gay characters as easily as the audiences could?

No, we're not there.

Thursday night proved it.

Sean Hayes, an actor who played a break through gay character on Will & Grace, is back on NBC with Sean Saves The World where he plays a gay father.  Almost everything about the show is finally starting to gel (if you've watched, you know which actor is not working). But the show's also making no sense.  Sean was lonely and horny for several episodes.  When he finally got a date, he was worried about his daughter and blew the date.

That makes sense.  We can follow that.

What we can't follow is the most recent episode.

There's a mole at work feeding info to the former owner Andrew played by Craig Ferguson.  Sean, it turns out, slept with Andrew when Andrew still owned the company.  Sean's always feared that he only got a promotion because he slept with Andrew.  So Sean goes to visit Andrew to find out who the mole is and why he got the promotion.

Andrew is still attracted to Sean.

Why didn't Sean sleep with him?

We're not even asking for an onscreen bedroom scene.

We're just noting that here was an attractive man that Sean was attracted to who wanted to sleep with him and Sean passed up the chance.

The man's no longer Sean's boss and one episode after another has portrayed Sean as horny and lonely so along comes an ex willing to sleep with him and Sean says no?

Again, we didn't need a bed scene, we didn't even need it to be a love story.  Sean tip-toeing out of the bedroom could have been hilarious. Is Sean a real character or is he just The Dick Van Dyke Show's Sally Rogers in male drag?

We were also confused by Scandal.  Jack Coleman has a recurring role on the program as the husband of US Vice President Sally Langston. It turns out that the character Daniel Douglas Langston is on the down low.  It also turns out that the years have slimmed Coleman down a bit but, more importantly, he's beefed up on the acting chops.

Dan Bucatinsky plays James Novak who's married to White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Cyrus has discovered Sally Langston is planning to drop off the re-election ticket and run against President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) in a third party bid.  Cyrus and First Lady Mellie  Grant (Bellamy Young) have decided the best way to end that run and get Sally back on the ticket is to catch her husband Daniel Douglas in an affair.

So while Cyrus arranges for James to interview Daniel Douglas at the vice president's residence while Sally is in Iowa, Mellie tells Daniel Douglas that James is in an open marriage.

The whole point was to get photos.

They get photos.  But that's our problem.

Daniel Douglas believes James is interested in him and grabs him to kiss him.


In what world is that realistic as a kiss?

If you're going to pull someone to you -- as Daniel Douglas clearly wants to do -- you grab them.  Not by the head.  You grab them by the back or, most likely, by the butt and pull them into you.

This was the most awkwardly staged kiss we'd seen in some time suggesting that, on the set of Scandal, the big concern was where hands didn't go.

Did someone create a new rule?  The one-foot-on-the-floor-at-all-times appears to have been replaced with no-hands-below-the-neck-and-shoulders.

And that's really too bad.  In both cases, out gay men were involved.  Though in the closet throughout Will & Grace, Sean Hayes came out after.  And Dan Bucatinsky?  He's one of  two out gay men on Scandal (the other is Guillermo Diaz who plays Huck).  And you can see that as progress.  But, as we watch CBS lead the charge backwards, we find the behavior by two other showrunners (Hayes and Shonda Rhimes) very disappointing.

Yes, we know.  There were photos Cyrus saw later on his cell phone -- James and Daniel Douglas shirtless.  Those were photos and Scandal's a TV show not a magazine.  We're also aware that some will insist, "They have a gay couple with a child on this show!"  Yes, they do.  All the more reason for the show to be a leader.


Ava and C.I. note added 1:46 am PST 11-25-2013.  Ty told us that the e-mails include a number who feel Modern Family does a great job with gay portrayals.  We disagree.  For reasons outlined in this piece as well as for the 'gay men and lesbians hate each other' nonsense -- which rips off Jack McFarland's dislike like for lesbians (in Will & Grace) and tries to turn it into a war among all gay men and all lesbians.  But to ensure that Ty is not dealing with this issue all week, the opening sentence has been changed.  It did read, "This fall, Thursday night is the one night of broadcast TV that acknowledges there are gay Americans."  We have inserted "really" into the sentence so that it now reads, "This fall, Thursday night is  the one night of broadcast TV that really acknowledges there are gay Americans."  We hope that helps.

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