Television

Gaily prime time

Homosexual characters are cropping up all over the tube

Shanda Deziel October 30 2000
Television

Gaily prime time

Homosexual characters are cropping up all over the tube

Shanda Deziel October 30 2000

Gaily prime time

Television

Homosexual characters are cropping up all over the tube

In one episode of her long-running sitcom, Roseanne found her husband, Dan, in bed with another man. Of course, the audience knew it was a practical joke—it was impossible to imagine the stereotypically hetero Dan, played by burly actor John Goodman, kissing a guy. Fast forward six years to the debut of Normal, Ohio, starring Goodman. This time it’s not a joke but the premise of TV’s newest show with a gay lead— only the third such series in network history. In the opening episode, airing Nov. 1 on Global, Butch, who left his wife and son four years ago to come out in Los Angeles, returns home to Normal to celebrate his son’s acceptance into medical school. Although he is assaulted by the comic ignorance of his small-town family, he decides to stay.

When Goodman takes what is essentially his lovable but boorish beerdrinking, TV-watching character from Roseanne and adds to it a vast knowledge of show tunes, there is no doubt that the landscape of television is changing. Since the 1970s, the tube has dallied with gay supporting characters (including those played by Billy Crystal on Soap, Martin Mull and Sandra Bernhard on Roseanne, and Doug Savant on Melrose Place), but there have never before been so many—and such positive—gay leads. There are gay teens on Dawsons Creek and Bujfy the Vampire Slayer, lesbian parents on Friends, lesbian doctors and nurses on ER, a gay black political aide on Spin City, a gay million-dollar winner on Survivor. There’s even a gay dog on South Park.

Ellen DeGeneres paved the way in 1997, when she came out in the media and then on her own sitcom. But after Ellen was cancelled the following season—its ratings i

had dropped, arguably because it had sacrificed humour for political posturing—openly gay leads no longer seemed appealing. Then came Will & Grace. In two seasons, the well-written sitcom about a gay man, played by Canadian Eric McCormack, and his straight female best friend, portrayed by Debra Messing, has won 12 million viewers (2.3 million in Canada), two Emmys for its outstanding supporting cast and the coveted Thursday, 9 p.m. time slot on NBC. Its success has cata-

puked gay shows back into the networks’ fickle favour—CBS alone has two more series with gay leads in development. “Television is a mirror of society,” says Doug Hoover, vice-president of programming at Global Television, “and society sets the standards, not TV.” The uneven progression of gay rights in society explains the lingering ironies of gay representation on television. The 13 gay lead or supporting characters currently on television (as counted by Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is a considerably larger number than the openly gay actors with ongoing TV roles. The casting of married men McCormack and Goodman to play gay characters suggests that networks believe viewers still aren’t comfortable with real gay stars. And Sean Hayes, who plays the gayest character on TV—Jack from Will & Grace— won’t even discuss his sexuality.

When it comes to plot lines, there are more long-term gay male relationships on TV than committed lesbian couples—lesbianism is often portrayed as a phase. But two women kissing is considered titillating and so is shown more often than two men locking lips. That helps explain why Will has been celibate for the past two seasons. “The creators of Will & Grace said they wanted this show to be enjoyed by millions of people, gay and straight, and not be some secret gay cult show,” says McCormack. “And that doesn’t happen if you start pushing people’s buttons too early. I think now we have earned the right to show deeper gay themes.” Meanwhile, over in Normal, Ohio, husband and wife sitcom creators Terry and Bonnie Turner have taken the bold move of making Goodman’s character sexually active right off the bat. Butch comes back from L.A. talking about how he’s had a therapist and dated a straight guy. “Well step into it maybe a little quicker than Will & Graced says Bonnie Turner. “But we will deal with the intimacy and not the sensationalism.” Ultimately, the Turners hope to show that people like Butch are perfectly normal—in Ohio or anywhere else.

Shanda Deziel