WITH WILL & GRACE, QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY, AND BOY
MEETS BOY, PRIME TIME HAS COME OUT. NED ZEMAN SURFS GAY TV'S CLOSET HISTORY,
POWER TALENT, AND TABOOS
In this year of Gay TV, with at least nine gay-centric shows in prime time,
the real question is: Which show is the gayest? Is it the obvious choice,
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? Or is it that old standard-bearer, Will &
Grace? For our money, though, TV's gayest show is, and always has been,
Friends. Since its premiere, in 1994, the hugely popular sitcom put a face
on the love that dares not speak its name, starring those three lovably
wisecracking girly-boys, Chandler, Ross, and Joey, who favor pastel
neckties, sweater-vests, and hair products, and who spend their days
lounging around a coffee bar, sharing muffins and lattes with the gals.
That only the Friends themselves seem unaware of their obvious gayness says
a little about them and a lot about the state of prime-time television,
which is so stepped in gayness even the straight guys could go either way.
This year's schedule includes NBC's Will & Grace; Bravo's two "reality"
hits, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (starring those fab-five fashionistas)
and Boy Meets Boy (The Bachelor with better lighting concepts) and
Showtime's Queer as Folk, whose raw look at the dating rituals of gay men
has spawned a lesbian counterpart, The L Word, which premieres next month.
That's not including all the semi-gay shows, which range from HBO's Six Feet
Under (gay mortician, gay cop, gay artists) and Sex and the City (straight
guys = bad, gay guys = good) to MTV's The Real World, whose ever changing
cast always includes at least one gay, lesbian, and/or bisexual, as well as
one unreconstructed heterosexual who learns to love flat-front khakis. And
then there's ABC's It's All Relative, a sitcom which, although it features a
gay couple, is so not gay; it's just marketed as suck. Imagine that: a
network consciously trying to "gay up" the product for the masses. Why else
would NBC have hired the ebullient Steven Cojocaru as Today's style and
all-around-fabulousness correspondent? Ten years ago, America woke up to
Willard Scott's forecast; not it awakens to a pair of flaming-red leather
Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's all just a bit overwhelming,
considering the history of Gay TV, which until recently could be written on
the head of a pin. By which we mean the "official" history, in which gay
characters and themes were actually identified s gay characters and gay
themes (as opposed to "paleontologists" and "a celebration of friendship set
in a Greenwich Village coffee shop"). The first time the word "homosexuals"
was heard on TV, which was during a 1954 Los Angeles talk show, it was
followed by the words " and the problems they present," according to The
Prime-Time Closet, a 2002 book by TV historian Stephen Tropiano. The h-word
resurfaced, in 1973, when Marcus Welby, M.D., treated a man with the
"illness," and when retirement-home residents were butchered by bloody
lesbians on Police Woman.
But Gay TV's unofficial history-that's another story, one that pre-dates
even The Andy Griffith Show, which gave us Don Knott's fey Barney Fife and
Jack Dodson's Howard Sprague, that lovable "confirmed bachelor." That
epithet could also have been bestowed upon The Beverly Hillbillies'
supercilious banker, Mr. Drysdale (not to mention his tightly wound, butch,
suit-wearing assistant, Jane Hathaway, played by Nancy Kulp), and should
have described every male castaway on Gilligan's Island: Gilligan
(girly-boy, platonic adoration for actresses, musicals), the Skipper (a
"bear," in current gay argot), the Professor (fastidious, indifferent to
horny babes), and Thurston Howell III (ascots, swishing). During this era a
rel, live confirmed bachelor--Paul Lynde--was in plain, screaming sight as
the center square of The Hollywood Squares.
See also: Felix Unger (The Odd Couple). See also: Jan Brady (The Brady
Bunch). See also: Eddie Munster (The Munsters). Mostly though, see Batman.
Replete with cape, tights that showcased interesting bulges, and the Caped
Crusader's doe-eyed little buddy, Robin, Batman was a festival of
unconsummated man-love. Although willfully ironic, the show's homoeroticism
grew so fraught, and the Dynamic Duo was spending so much time together in
the Bat Cave, that the producers decided to send in a new character,
Batgirl, who promptly became the loneliest woman in Gotham City.
Only in the late 70s did gay characters stop barking at fire hydrants and
bludgeoning the elderly. Here we recall Archie Bunker's gay drinking buddy,
Steve, and Billy Crystal's gay quarterback on Soap, albeit with mixed
emotions. Jodie Dallas--the Billy Crystal character--spent most of his
screen time dreaming and scheming about a sex-change operation. The 80s and
early 90s brought little relief from stereotypes, but much hand-wringing
from the family-values crowd, usually because of gay kisses--on
Thirtysomething and Melrose Place--that ultimately never aired. Even after
Ellen finally came out, in 1997, we never saw her actually being a lesbian,
Although Will & Grace certainly validated and commercialized gay chic, the
legwork was done by the less risk-averse, cable networks--specifically HBO,
MTV, and Showtime, which have routinely produced gay characters (Sex and the
City's fictive Stanford Blatch; The Real World's nonfictive Pedro Zamora and
Danny Roberts, among others; many, many characters indulging in explicit gay
canoodling on Undressed, all of which appealed to that most coveted
demographic--the 18-to24s). Credit also goes to England's Channel 4, whose
original Queer as Folk series, which premiered in 1996, spawned the American
version. Still, few would have predicted that straight men across America
would favor five take-no-prisoner stylists over JAG.
Former talent agent Michael Ovitz, it turns out, was wrong only in degree.
There is a "gay mafia" in Hollywood; it doesn't exist to foil embittered,
old heterosexuals, though. Anyone who disputes the existence of a gay mafia
obviously wasn't invited to the annual guy-centric Valentine's Day party
thrown by producers Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek) and Dan Jinks
(American Beauty). In TV, especially, many or most of today's best producers
happen to be gay: Williamson, Darren Star (Sex and the City), Alan Ball (Six
Feet Under), and David Crane (Friends). That all of these producers have
fostered gay material is as understandable as it is vital. Collectively, and
despite their liberal bona fides, TB's Big Three straight guys--John Wells,
Aaron Sorkin, and David E. Kelley--currently offer only one gay series
regular, ER's Dr. Weaver, who "became" a lesbian only after six straight
seasons, as it were.
For all its progress and self-congratulation, Gay TV remains a muddle of
contradictions. While Grace has banged every stud in town, rarely do we see
Will's boyfriends, who don't seem to be so keen on the whole touching thing.
(Maybe they know that Eric McCormack, in the grand tradition of straight
actors playing gay guys, is always giving interviews about his wife and
kids.) Notwithstanding their incessant sex patter, neither Will nor his
mincing sidekick, Jack, ever seems to get any. Of all the gay fashionistas
in New York, why did Queer Eye for the Straight Guy select one (the
ubiquitous Carson Kressley) whose "taste" suggests Barbara Mandrell at the
Sands circa 1972? And given the multitude of Bachelors and Bachelorettes who
get it on in the hot tub each week, why were the Boy Meets Boy contestants
contractually forbidden to do the same? And why was James, the grand-prize
hunk on that series, shown mostly embracing Andra, his female best friend?
(And since we're asking, why was Dani Behr, the obviously Aussie female
host, always referring to the contestants as "mates" and their dormitory as
the "mates' house" if nobody was doing any mating?) Twenty years from now,
will we look back on this period as we now look at, say, Good Times and The
Jeffersons, with their Jive Talkers and Sassy Black Maids?
But maybe we're making too much of the whole Gay TV thing. Let's just sit
back and enjoy America's favorite night of comedy, NBC's "Must-See-TV
8:00 P.M., Friends: In the opening scene, a visibly excited Chandler allows
Joey to caress his thigh. Later, Joey is unable to seal the deal with
Rachel, who compounds his impotence via a kick in the testicles. Meanwhile,
Ross visits a spray-tanning salon.
8:30, Scrubs: In the opening scene, our randy male doctors make six
homoerotic jokes, then spend the rest of the episode wondering whether a
night out together constitutes a "man-date"--that is, when they're not
tending to their patient, a gay man plenty healthy enough to suggest a
little "man-on-man action."
9:00, Will & Grace: In the opening scene, while ironing flat-front khakis,
Will asks himself, "What is it about putting metal to cotton that makes me
feel like a man?" Cue Jack, who flits in on tiptoe, ballerina-style. In his
9:30, Coupling: During a funeral, the three female leads taunt the three
males--"Don't we make a lovely threesome?" After alluding to the "lesbian
thing," one of the women says, "I would definitely sleep with her." Later,
two of the men hold hands.
The evening ends with two commercials. The first features male models
strutting to the altered lyrics of the Frank Loesser showstopper "Standing
on the Corner, Watching all the Guys Go By." The product? Old Navy jeans.
The second commercial promotes tomorrow night's "Fabulous Friday," which
thanks to NBC's partnership with Bravo, features Queer Eye for the Straight
Gay TV is here, and the revolution will be televised.
by Mark Seliger
September 18, 2003