The golden age of gay TV?
Quantity, quality, and meaning vary widely
It's the best of times for gays on television. But not every supportive show carries the same cultural significance.
ABC's Modern Family, is, of course, about a modern family. As in, "hey, these couples aren't like families you're used to! They're modern! They're the new normal." Ostensibly, the show has two "modern" couples — Cam and Mitchell, and Sophia and Jay, though May-December romances are as pre-modern as high school crushes. All three families in the show hold their own now, which is a testament to the producers, writers, and actors, but the show's title all but announces the conceit. Cam and Mitchell are great characters, and it's great to see straight actors (Eric Stonestreet) play gay, and the show is just great. But it still reminds of the era in television when shows featuring "normal" black families began to inch their way onto the small screen.
Speaking of new normals, the most outrageous show on network television, the show that features more gay jokes per minute than even a carful of teenage boys could conjure up, ("pole smokers!"), is about a gay couple and the young woman who becomes the surrogate mother to their baby. It's title: The New Normal. As in, "hey, it's normal now for gays to have children." Ellen Barkin plays the foil: Goldie's great-grandmother, Jane Forrest. Barkin's character's over-the-top un-PC-ness — half Archie Bunker, half Mario Cantone — leaves the viewer unsure of whether she's intended to be a bigot, or a hero. (She says what she wants, and in the end, she really does love the gay couple her daughter just brought into the family!)
Both shows channel our moment in time: the normalization of something that still is different (and "other"). They are not simply evidence to me of how quickly gay rights have advanced, but instead symptoms of a culture that is slowly coming to grips with a reality that has long existed. There are gay rights advocates who don't want to be normalized, who think that what they call a "heteronormative" culture is as restricting as the closet. Where are the network dramas that feature the glorious, dramatic, difficult lives of single men gay men in cities? The shows that go there — that portray gay life as it is, and not as a variant of the idealized lives of straight couples?
The one that comes the closest is CBS's Partners, which features a straight dude and his gay best friend and their … well, wait, doesn't the title distance itself again? The show is about two architects and their lives, but we're meant to focus on the gay-straight relationship as much as anything else. The Los Angeles Times said Partners was an example of how "being a gay man on TV is no longer a big deal." Once again, the show's title belies that point. It's still a big deal. By way of contrast, watch the way ABC's Happy Endings incorporates the character of Max Blum, played by actor Adam Pally. You could watch an entire episode and not know that he's gay. You could watch another episode and know nothing but his character's sexuality. He loves football. He loves hot men. He plays video games. He is a minister (sort of). He's kind of all over the map, which means he's hard to pin down, which makes him, to my mind, the most accurately drawn fictional gay character on television.
Like every gay person, I like to see shows that bathe my people in positive spotlights. At the same time, I kind of wish that gay people were allowed to be as flawed and complex as straight people. When that happens, when networks are comfortable with the reality of gay life, then maybe America will be treated to even better television.
By the way, if you'd like to see a show that comes closest to describing the life that I experienced as an urban gay guy living in the city, check out Logo's One Girl, Five Guys. (The subtitle of the show is: "20 Questions About Love and Sex.") The gay dudes on the show, all Canadian and in their twenties, represent the broad diversity of opinion about life and culture in a way that rings very true. Be warned: The show's discussion about sex is not censored. Gay men are not portrayed as idealized, chaste, charmingly feminine versions of straight men. If that show is too much for you, then MTV's Teen Wolf, which features a mix of gay and straight characters, is revealing and entertaining.
Note that I have said little about the portrayal of lesbians and bisexuals on television. I do know that Grey's Anatomy show-runner Shonda Rhimes had to wrestle with ABC executives a few years ago when she wanted one of her doctors to embark on a lesbian romance.
I have no idea what to say about the gay character on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!. Uncle Poodle (Lee Thompson) is thusly nick-named because "Poodle" is a another word for gays (according to Mama). He is enlisted to help Alana compete in a pageant. Poodle is stereotypically gay and stereotypically redneck, and he seems to be completely integrated into the family. "Everyone's got a little gay in them," Alana explains to the camera. I cannot explain why Poodle's straight brother is nicknamed "Sugar Bear," but I find my own confusion to be delightful.
I've just written 700 words about gay television shows without mentioning Glee. I don't watch the show; it's not my cup of Earl Gray. Still, in the pantheon of "gay" shows, Glee deserves its own column. Though I have some reservations about the way that Kurt and Blaine's romance has been portrayed, the show itself has done a lot of good, it gets all the right people angry, and it is probably, of all of these, the one that captures the "gay moment" in a way that reaches the widest possible audience. Glee may read as a "gay" show, but it is so much more than that. It's about music, self-expression, creativity, celebrity, growing up.