By Steven M. Housman
The interesting thing about the 2001-2002 television season is that there are more gay and lesbian characters on dramas opposed to sitcoms for the first time ever. The reason this is significant is because generally programmers and the network suits feel that the American public can tolerate homosexuality when its tempered with humor. Usually the humor is placed in sitcoms where generally the straight audience can laugh at gays, with the rare exception of Will & Grace where they laugh with them. I think there have been enough gay and lesbian representation in sitcoms for it to move into dramatic television so we can stop laughing at and with gay characters and actually learn to live with them, learn about their lives more. Without the gay sitcoms we wouldnt have the dramas such as Queer As Folk, we wouldnt have story lines such as Carrie Weavers on ER. This marks a major shift in television explains Scott Seomin, GLAADs entertainment media director. If you look at the characters played on television, gays and lesbians make up about 1% when we know that gays and lesbians make up much more than that in life. So they are actually under represented. Gays of color are practically non existent with the exception of Michael Boatman on Spin City and Valerie Rae Miller on Dark Angel. Boatman plays Carter Heywood whos considered a lead in an ensemble cast, and Miller plays Original Cindy whos an African-American lesbian whos been described as a Rhoda to Jessica Albas Mary. If you were to look at the way it is now on prime time television, lesbians are practically non-existent and gay men are wealthy, white, live in New York and dont have sex. That is not accurate, nor is it fair. What kind of message are we sending to parents whos kids who are struggling to come out to them? Its just not realistic. Also gays and lesbians are not represented accurately when it comes to heartbreak and job discrimination, while trying to keep their heads above water in this world. Seomin adds, It would be great to see a gay version of Friends where there would be an entire different set of circumstances and so many different and wonderful ways to go. I know that there are many gay and lesbians out there that are upset that more gay actors arent getting good gay roles. Added frustration is that more gay actors dont get more straight roles. Its easy to look at Eric McCormacks Will, but more interesting to look at Rupert Everett playing straight in a film such as An Ideal Husband. It would be nice to see more of that in prime time television.
There was a pilot that got a lot of press called Say Uncle which I understand all the networks bid on but ultimately went to CBS. This would have shown a gay character as a parent, where he was raising his niece and nephew. Of course he was white and wealthy and living in the Hollywood Hills, but well take one milestone at a time. President of CBS, Les Moonves was noted as saying that it would be a very difficult role to cast. David Hassellhoff read for the role as did French Stewart, but werent right for it. They were interested in Gregory Harrison who would not leave Broadway where hes starring in Follies, so Ken Olin got the part and did a superb job, with Teri Hatcher in a supporting role. It was a funny script. If it hadnt been a really good script, all the networks wouldnt have been fighting over it. Creator Jeff Richman who put his life into this show said he was hideously disappointed but didnt have a negative thing to say about CBS who he said treated the show with great respect. CBS did eleven or twelve pilots, they had two slots and they developed Ellen DeGeneres new sitcom Ellen Again and Say Uncle. Richman went on to say essentially it was a contest because they were never going to put two lead shows with two gay lead characters in the two time slots they had available for the fall season and I dont blame them. Its a business, the fact is that one made it on happened to be Ellen and not us. While Im disappointed, the entire development process was very much supported by the studio which was Fox and the network. Say Uncle was essentially a show about a gay parent, which would have been a first for network television. Richman adds In that way, it was disappointing to me as the creator that that element of gay life will not be shown. This was a reluctant gay parent, it wasnt a guy that wanted kids and went out and adopted them. It wasnt this perfect selfless gay person that always wanted children and never got to fulfill that. Children were the last thing he wanted. I must say we did, and were encouraged to do, and finally did the show we wanted to do. Ultimately it came down to the fact that as a business, they could not say heres our new fall line-up and our two new shows have a lesbian as the star of one and a gay man is the star of the other. The negative feelings that I had were placed trying to cast the part, that was a nightmare. Ken Olin who hasnt had to audition in years ultimately won the part and he was so wonderful in it and I could not have been happier with the product. As a gay person, Im really happy that Ellen is on. As a writer and producer, Im miserable that my show isnt on. Ellen DeGeneres is really an appealing presence on television and shes wonderful in her show. I cant emphasize this enough, I felt very very supported they wanted to put this on TV, and in the end it just came down to Ellen. The timing was just off, if Ellen hadnt been there they probably wouldve been more apt in giving this a shot. It wasnt just another gay TV show, it was more of a milestone as this wouldve been the gay Family Affair. Its very hard to find a forty-year old man thats an established actor to play this as Olin did. He was the glue to this show as Kelsey Grammer is to Frasier. Ninety-five percent of the actors that are out there that might have jumped at this part if it were a straight guy would not even consider taking this role.
Another pilot that looked very positive but wasnt picked up was Cheri Oteris sitcom for CBS where her best friend was a gay man who was boring, flat and realistic (not the flamboyant stereotype). Also, ABC didnt pick up Born In Brooklyn where former designer Isaac Mizrahi was playing a gay publicist, but sources tell me that it wasnt teriffic. Instead Mizrahi is slated for a thirty-minute weekly show on the Oxygen network beginning in September. The format follows day-to-day activities in the life of this designer, movie and Off-Broadway performer. Each show will feature a celebrity. Its not being defined as a talk show, but instead it will be more of a weekly documentary-type show about his life. For the first broadcast, Mizrahis guest will be Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker. The show will display Mizrahi as he helps Parker pull together an ensemble for the opening night of her husband Matthew Brodericks opening night of his Tony award-winning musical The Producers. Future broadcasts will feature Bebe Neuwirth, Sandra Bernhard, Mary-Louise Parker and Parker Posey. Its not exactly one of the six big networks, but it will be good exposure and will probably fare better than the Brooklyn project would have.
As far as the other dramas go, NYPD Blue has been generating positive response on the John Irvin character played exquisitely by Bill Brochtrup. Brochtrup told me he was very proud of the character and went on to say I think hes lovely in every sense of the word. He sees the good in everyone and responds to that part of the person, especially Sipowicz. Sipowicz of course is played by Emmy Award-winning actor Dennis Franz. There are approximately fifteen shows on the fall schedule that feature gay characters. The most visible programs on network television besides Will & Grace and Ellen Again are the aforementioned ER, Dark Angel, Spin City, and NYPD Blue. Other programs include Dawsons Creeks Jack played by Kerr Smith; Felicitys Javier played by Ian Gomez; Buffy The Vampire Slayers Willow portrayed by Alyson Hannigan; Providences Elliot played by openly gay actor Scott Thompson; and The Simpsons Waylon Smithers voice by Harry Shearer. Other programs include Friends, who has reoccurring characters Carol and Susan played by Jane Sibbett and Jessica Hecht respectively. On the cable stations, we have HBOs Six Feet Under with Michael C. Hall who plays closeted David, and Mathew St. Patrick who plays his African-American boyfriend police officer Keith; Sex And The Citys Stanford who plays Carries gay friend and confidant portrayed by Willie Garson. The A&E network has 100 Centre St. with actress LaTanya Richardson portraying in openly lesbian judge named Attallah Sims. Spyder Games is a new series for MTV that began in early summer. Its a soap opera formatted show based in Los Angeles. In it, a gay character is featured named Francisco Torres who plays a twenty-four year old banker. Franciscos favorite music is eclectic to say the least. It includes Fatboy Slim, Moby, Frank Sinatra, U2, Thalia, PJ Harvey, Gypsy Kings and of course Madonna. His favorite hobby is lurking and his favorite store is the famed Pleasure Chest which is a retail outlet famous for sexual paraphernalia. Finally, there is Showtimes Queer As Folk which continues its successful run. As far as television movies are concerned, NBC is slated to air the high profiled Matthew Shepard Story starring Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston with Goldie Hawn serving as executive producer.
The forecast for the season is good, with many improvements made. We still have a long way to go, but the level of attitude, tolerance and respect is looking a bit brighter all the time.
© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.