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Out of the closet, but under the covers

Network TV wakes up to gay sexuality, although it looks strangely like TV in the 1950s.

Published August 11, 2003

[Times photo: Teresanne Cossetta]

Ask most experts on TV and they'll tell you: Television rarely leads society.

Instead, TV usually finds itself playing catch-up to the ideas swirling in mainstream culture - whether the subject is integrating black and Latino characters, criticizing the Vietnam War, dealing with America's feminist and sexual revolutions or questioning the case for the nation's current hostilities in Iraq.

So it is no surprise that - after years of polls showing an increasing acceptance of gay culture and gay people among the mainstream - TV has finally owned up to its inner homosexual, basking in the success of a recent spate of shows featuring gay subjects, including cable channel Bravo's makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and its dating series Boy Meets Boy.

The mid '90s controversies over Ellen DeGeneres' coming out onscreen, and Roseanne's same-sex kiss, now feel like quaint relics of a bygone age. Nowadays, NBC is repackaging Queer Eye into half-hour episodes for its own use (the second one airs at 9:30 p.m. Thursday), offering Jay Leno as a willing makeover subject on the Tonight Show airing at 11:35 p.m. Thursday.

As further proof: This fall there are three new shows featuring gay characters, including two series with gay couples that interact like married pairs.

But amid all this queer power there's an interesting twist. Particularly on network TV, programmers seem to love gay culture, while avoiding gay acts.

Think about it. Will & Grace's Will Truman would seem the ultimate catch: a witty, affluent attorney with a monogamous streak, looking for a man to share his life.

So why haven't we seen him in a relationship, in a fling or on more than a handful of dates in five years' worth of shows? Even the series' resident hedonist - Sean Hayes' over-the-top Jack McFarland - does little more than talk about his conquests on the show.

Contrast that with co-star Debra Messing's Grace Adler, who had a steamy courtship with a character played by Woody Harrelson and is now married to a character played by crooner Harry Connick Jr. Even reed-voiced eccentric Karen Walker gets more onscreen play than Will & Grace's gay guys.

And that's not a recent phenomenon: When John Goodman played a gay man returning to his rural hometown in Fox's 2000 series Normal, Ohio, he was a guy who talked a lot about being gay but was never shown dating, romancing or loving another man. Ditto with NYPD Blue's perpetually marginalized gay receptionist, John Irvin.

The dynamic is often the same: lots of references to clubbing, musical theater, designer clothes or other accouterments assumed to be part of gay culture, with no onscreen romance, kissing, handholding or (especially!) sex.

Not so on cable, where viewers have seen amazingly subtle gay relationships: a black police officer who tries to drown his homosexuality in a marriage and in religion on FX's The Shield; a black lesbian officer drawn to street work despite her life partner's objections on HBO's The Wire; an interracial gay couple fighting all the foibles and pitfalls of any romantic relationship on HBO's Six Feet Under; explicitly brazen sexual encounters depicted among a group of gay friends on Showtime's Queer as Folk.

But in the network universe, programmers still seem to be practicing a bizarre form of "don't ask, don't tell" that skirts a disturbing fear: that mainstream viewers will watch gay people as long as they don't actually practice their sexual orientation.

"It seems that Will is gay in name only . . . gay male sexuality, in particular, makes the broadcast networks very nervous," said Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "The broadcast networks, when they program something that is a benchmark - that might be people of color or an interracial marriage or divorce - they've been very, very careful. When it comes to gay and lesbian portrayals, they've always been overly cautious and overly conservative."

GLAAD's concern: That network TV now only sees gay characters as middle-class white males with a yuppie's taste for upper-crust culture and cutting-edge fashion - sorta like Frasier Crane without all the fussing over dating women.

Forget about lesbians such as DeGeneres' Ellen Morgan or people of color such as Michael Boatman's gay and black mayoral aide on Spin City (ironically, in the midst of all this pro-gay television, DeGeneres repeatedly has told reporters her new talk show won't dwell on her sexuality).

Though network TV seems willing to feature gay characters and subjects more often, their vision of what makes a gay character seems to have narrowed dangerously.

"What (TV networks) have learned is that straight viewers do want varied entertainment. . . . They don't want to see the same old thing," Seomin said, noting that cable channels such as Bravo and Showtime have found gay-centered programming also attracts large numbers of female viewers. "I truly believe that Bravo is beta-testing shows for the network . . . including future gay and lesbian programming. (But) GLAAD believes the networks still underestimate what viewers want to see."

My own theory: The reality of gay life as depicted on TV is directly connected to the viewers' influence.

How so? In the world of premium cable, there's a direct relationship between viewer tastes and financial success: If people like the channel, they pay a subscription fee, and HBO or Showtime or whoever makes money. On standard cable, some of the service fees viewers pay also find their way to programmers' pockets.

But in broadcast TV, networks make money by selling advertisers access to attractive groups of viewers. So if advertisers are skittish about the selling environment of a show's content - McDonald's, for example, might shy away from the people eating disgusting items on NBC's Fear Factor - then high viewership may not equal financial success.

As evidence, I note the way NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker neatly sidestepped the question of whether Will & Grace paved the way for Queer Eye's success with mainstream viewers during a press conference last week.

"I think the public embraces good shows," Zucker said, when asked if viewers would have embracedQueer Eye had it debuted before Will & Grace. "Do I think that Will & Grace has made it easier? I think that's a very deep question that you can debate."

Coming from a guy willing to take credit for airing Fear Factor and For Love or Money, that's a dodge of gargantuan proportions.

Still, there's no denying Queer Eye has struck a nerve in a manner that seemed unthinkable just six years ago, in the days when America pretended DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell were just a good date away from heterosexual bliss.

Patterned like British makeover shows such as What Not to Wear, Queer Eye features a quintet of gay experts on personal grooming, food and wine, interior design and culture (dubbed the "Fab Five") who take a clueless straight guy and remake his life - after a few searing potshots at the hapless subject's original state.

In its debut episode July 15, Queer Eye drew the most viewers in Bravo history, attracting nearly 7-million viewers two days later on NBC, according to Entertainment Weekly magazine. And despite some critics' grousing that it has only furthered TV's stereotyping of gay men, the show's participants insist it builds important bridges between gay and straight guys.

"If someone says we look great or we have great hair or we're really good dancers, we're all for it. . . . Bring it on," said Carson Kressley, a former Ralph Lauren designer and stylist dubbed the "fashion savant" among the Fab Five, during a July press conference.

"When you see the show . . . you realize that we're just, you know, guys hanging out (who) just wind up being friends. And those stereotypes fall by the wayside," Kressley added. "One thing that guys don't tend to develop is their own personal sense of style. They have a favorite ball team, but they don't have a favorite designer. It's crazy!"

Sometimes, well-meaning programmers can develop shows intended to focus on gay subjects that wind up emphasizing more common themes.

Case in point: the AMC cable channel's new documentary The AMC Project: Gay Hollywood, in which a gay filmmaker followed five gay men struggling to find success as actors, writers, directors and performers in Hollywood.

Director Jeremy Simmons had hoped to make a film celebrating the manner in which young, gay artists could find success in modern-day showbiz. What he found was a quintet of blond, white, middle-class guys who - aside from the subject matter of their films, TV shows and comedy routines - were pretty much like all the other folks aspiring to make it in Hollywood's dream factory.

"In a way, the problem is the title Gay Hollywood, which suggests we're going to show you all of gay Hollywood," said Simmons of the 90-minute film (airing at 10 tonight on AMC), which shines brightest when documenting drag performer Micah McCain's invention of a standup comedy act as "Bridgette of Madison County."

"I thought the gay aspect would play a much more central role," Simmons added. "But that's not what they're dealing with on a daily basis."

Still, at a time when favorable Supreme Court rulings and talk about gay marriage has brought a slight backlash against gay issues in opinion polls, GLAAD's Seomin finds it encouraging that shows such as Queer Eye or ABC's upcoming fall sitcom featuring gay parents, It's All Relative, can spur further discussion and understanding.

"There's a feeling that gays are everywhere on TV, but that's not the case," he added. "But when the media is talking about gay images more, people at their dinner table are talking about gay images more. It allows gay and lesbian kids to test the waters with their parents . . . and the most valuable insights can come out of (that kind of) discussion."

- To reach Eric Deggans, call 727 893-8521, e-mail or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at

[Last modified August 8, 2003, 12:58:40]

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