The really significant thing about all the recent groundbreaking gay moments in TV – well, significant to me – is that I and so many of my gay friends managed to miss them.
It’s not that we wanted to. Like 40 million Americans, I like to watch Dawson’s Creek every now and then, but I somehow missed the first prime-time boy-boy romantic teen kiss. I’m addicted to ER, but I wasn’t home last week when the cantankerous chief, Kerry Weaver, ended up in bed with another woman. I kinda love Buffy but haven’t gotten around to checking it out this season, despite the lesbo subplot involving Willow.
Times have clearly changed. Twenty years ago, when television was just starting to pry open the closet door, my gay friends and I would have made the time to watch anything that promised a gay sensibility, gay subplots, gay characters. That’s how hungry we were to see ourselves reflected in the great cultural mirror – network TV – to feel that media validation, to feel that we were visible.
That hunger, back in the early eighties, overwhelmed all other considerations – taste being not the least of them. With equal and indiscriminate fascination and a strangled kind of pride, we watched everything from the champagne-soaked caresses of Sebastian and Charles on PBS’s Brideshead Revisited to Steven Carrington’s tearful farewell to his ephebic boyfriend Luke on ABC’s Dynasty. (This was after the Moldavian royal-wedding fiasco. Don’t ask.) That was in 1981. Twenty years later, there are so many gay films (to say nothing of gay film festivals), gay books, gay plays, gay TV characters and subplots, and now gay TV shows, that you wouldn’t be able to keep up with them if you wanted to.
The question is, would you want to?
Particularly this past season, during which NBC’s prime-time hit Will & Grace won an Emmy for Best Comedy and two acting awards as well, and Showtime’s pec-happy gay soap Queer as Folk has hogged headlines since well before its first provocative voice-over (“It’s all about sex”) made its way through the ether, much has been made of what Entertainment Weekly calls “the gay TV revolution.” But just how much of a revolution is it, really?
Comedy first. Yes, Will & Grace waltzed off with the Best Comedy Emmy last year, but it was the show’s supporting actors who won the awards. As well they should have: The Jack and Karen characters are outrageously funny – outrageous being the operative word here. (She may be female and married, but the Karen character is, essentially, a drag queen.) But however groundbreakingly outré and camp and gay their personae and their jokes, these characters fit quite snugly into an age-old dramatic and television pattern in which the wisecracking second bananas are allowed – encouraged – to be as campy and vicious as they like. They’re the repositories of all kinds of audience energies, from the petty desire to see one’s own secret meanness reflected onscreen to the more obscure but equally urgent desire to examine something “exotic” (and, perhaps, unwholesome) from a safe distance.
Remember Lost in Space? Even back then, when you were 6 or 7, you somehow knew that the evil, overeducated Dr. Smith, with his faux-British manners and delicacy of constitution and sensibility, was a crypto-pedophile, chasing after poor Will Robinson while directing witticisms barbed with erotic intensity at Judy’s fiancé, the hunky Don. Dr. Smith was reincarnated into a thousand other gay or crypto-gay characters, from pretty much all of Samantha’s relatives on Bewitched to the sex-hungry yenta Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show to good ol’ Alice on The Brady Bunch.
Like real jesters, these gay TV jesters are given license to violate convention precisely so that the main characters’ conventionality – their essential straightness – can be left intact. The gayer Jack is, the straighter Will’s allowed to be. And let there be no doubt: Will is straight – and not merely because the only “partner” Will ever seems to sleep with is Grace. Whatever its claims to being a “gay” show, Will & Grace follows yet another ancient comedic formula, one that’s worked for long-running shows as diverse as Get Smart, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc. Shows, that is, in which an attractive boy-girl pair are clearly “right” for one another but kept from hooking up. That dramatic tension is what fuels the show. I have a lot of close girlfriends, but I don’t have erotic dreams about them; Will does about Grace in the opening of one episode. For all its gay jokes and gay characters, Will & Grace gives us yet again a couple of attractive singles who just haven’t figured out that, gosh darn it, each is the ideal mate for the other.
There are practically no girls at all in this season’s big gay drama, Queer as Folk – it’s not clear precisely what species, let alone what sex, Sharon Gless’s character is supposed to belong to – but it too is not notably breaking ground, since it wobbles between television’s two oldest functions: education and titillation. It is all about sex – and not much else: Its “frank” depiction of gay men doing it has been the subject of endless articles, interviews, reviews, think pieces. And yet for all that it shows you pictures of things you’ve never seen pictured before on TV, Queer as Folk reminds me of nothing so much as a National Geographic special – or perhaps one of those Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom shows. (“I’ll go straighten the tent while Jim observes how the male mounts from the rear …”)
It’s funny to think of Queer as Folk as educational, but that’s what it is and what it’s meant as. Unfortunately, it’s so smug about what it’s doing for American culture that it seems to have completely forgotten about the other bits and pieces that go into successful television drama – stuff like plot and motivation and believable characters. In one early episode, the horrible sex-god protagonist explains to his latest conquest, an angelic-looking 15-year-old virgin so clueless that he makes Joan of Arc look like Robin Byrd, what “rimming” is (as if this were somehow exclusively gay). As I watched, I had a sudden, horribly clear vision of my parents’ friends Mimi and Bernie sitting with a legal pad somewhere on Long Island and dutifully taking notes so that they could talk to me on a more equal footing next Passover.
Kevin Williamson, the gay writer of Scream, recently complained – at least I hope he was complaining – that “all gay movies are about being gay,” by which I take him to mean that they’re about gay people doing specifically gay stuff (as opposed, say, to worrying about promotions or having arguments with their friends about the Florida recount). That’s true about Queer as Folk to the millionth power. It’s a show in which the characters have no character precisely because all they do is have sex or think and talk about having sex with other men, which is, in most cases, what “being gay” boils down to once you strip away the other 90 percent of waking life. When you think about it, the only breakthrough in the big new breakthrough shows is to depict gay people doing what is, curiously enough, never thought to be soul- or character-defining in the case of straight people: having sex. But then a series about gay people that showed their jobs and mortgages and kids and cranky parents and failed aspirations or relationships as well as wild successes, wouldn’t be all that sexy.
That show would, in fact, be Normal, Ohio. And if Normal, Ohio, a gay show with a really revolutionary agenda, was cancelled, it may be because nobody really wanted to watch a sitcom in which the gay people are pretty much indistinguishable from their neighbors – in which the momentous business of “being gay” is secondary. (Did anyone watch Ellen after Ellen came out?) The wild success of Will & Grace and Queer as Folk could mean that millions of Americans are ready to watch gay people on TV. The fact that they so easily trounced the competition suggests, on the other hand, that millions of Americans still tolerate gays on TV as long as they’re obediently outrageous, adorable, or exotic – as long as they are more queer, that is, than folk.