Outword Magazine

April 29, 2004

Playing It Relatively Straight – Reviews of Gay-Themed TV Shows Playing It Straight and It’s All Relative.

By Dave Rupel

Take two gay-themed TV shows that couldn’t be more different – ABC’s comedy It’s All Relative and Fox’s new reality show, Playing It Straight.

One is a sit-com with sterling credentials. Two of the Executive Producers won an Oscar in 2003 for Chicago. Two of the other producers spent years helping craft the impeccably funny scripts of Frasier. And in this day and age where looks often outweigh talent, Relative did the unthinkable and hired a cast full of Broadway veterans.

The other is a reality show on the Fox network – the very same network that recently gave us the cringe-inducing show called The Littlest Groom, in which a little person got to choose between dating little women – or normal sized women.

The comedy’s concept of two gay men in a long-term relationship struggling to deal with their daughter’s fiancé’s blue-collar family is unique and promising.

The premise of the reality show? The instantly offensive sounding idea of whether or not a bunch of gay men can pretend to be straight in order to fool a naïve young woman and win $1,000,000.

So how come Playing It Straight is a much more entertaining show than It’s All Relative?

Because a good premise can still have flawed execution. Playing it Straight takes a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward a difficult subject and ends up making a genuinely funny show that also proves to be insightful. Whereas It’s All Relative takes a very positive angle on gay life (a successful long-term relationship) – and sadly, makes it dull.

The biggest problem with Relative is its lack of sharply delineated characters. Once you get past the blue-collar heterosexuals versus the upscale, professional gay couple… who are these people? Nowhere is that more painful than in the characters of Bobby & Liz, the Romeo & Juliet couple the show revolves around. Bobby O’Neil is the son of the blue-collar family and is played blandly by Reid Scott. Liz is the girl raised by two gay men – and is played by the even more bland Maggie Lawson. The actors – and characters – have zero chemistry together… leading to the big question. Why are these two people a couple? And why should their parents (or the audience) care?

Is he the black sheep of the family because he’s smart and liberal? Or is he, like his parents, a bit embarrassed to have gay in-laws? Conversely, why is an intellectual snob like Liz – (her idea of a sex symbol is Ted Koppel) – involved with Bobby? He’s not particularly smart or witty, like Chandler on Friends and he’s not a lovable dolt like Woody on Cheers. So does she have a thing for blue-collar lugs? Or is she uncomfortable with his simple roots? Unfortunately, the producers don’t answer any of these questions. From the three episodes made available for review, it isn’t even clear if these two young adults have jobs. What should be a classic “opposites attract” love story – like the brilliant and hysterical tale of Sam and Diane on Cheers – is instead bland and lifeless. (There’s a reason these two characters have the least amount of screen time.)

Unfortunately, other characters don’t fare much better. Philip, the persnickety gay dad and the most amusing character of the bunch, is played with vigor by John Benjamin Hickey, almost as a modern day Felix Unger. Unfortunately, the main characteristic of his partner, Simon, played by openly gay actor Christopher Sieber is that he’s nice. (Everyone knows that the description of a blind date as someone “nice” is the kiss of death. So why do the producers think that makes good TV?)

Simon did make one catty comment about his prospective son-in-law, Bobby, referring to him as “Jethro.” Yet the line didn’t work because we’d never seen Bobby do anything remotely Neanderthal. The best comedy is rooted in reality. That’s why Karen’s zingers about Grace’s clothes work so well on Will & Grace. Because Grace’s fashion choices are often questionable. The same reason slut jokes about Sue Ann and bald jokes about Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show worked. She was a slut and he was bald.

Perhaps the reason Playing It Straight is so entertaining is that it is rooted in reality. Like it or not, everyone has stereotypes of what a gay man is. It may not be politically correct to talk about them, but neither were Archie Bunker’s bigoted comments. Yet, at the end of the day, Archie’s views were funny precisely because the character was so real.

While Playing It Straight revolves around the tricky notions of gay stereotypes – what it’s really doing is seeking to blow away those stereotypes – by not being afraid to examine them close-up. When the hunky men introduce themselves at the top of the show, it’s almost impossible not to immediately play along with a game of “which one is gay?” A giant step backward for the gay community? Not necessarily. Because for me, I found I was making my predictions based only on who seemed to be the poorest liar – something that has nothing to do with being gay or straight.

For example, when Ryan first met Jackie, the woman at the center of the show, he hugged her stiffly, giving her forced pats on the back. Immediately, I thought “gay”! Because I recognized that stiff hug. That was the hug of a closeted gay man pretending to be straight, but was really uncomfortable with the physical proximity to the opposite sex. Or was it? Maybe he was just conservative and didn’t want to appear too forward?

That’s the brilliance of Playing It Straight. Because it makes you re-think – and laugh at – every idea you’ve ever had about being gay – and how absurd they can be. This was epitomized by the most damning piece of “gay” evidence in the first show: one of the guys brought a hair dryer!

And if being funny isn’t enough reason to watch, Executive Producer Ciara Byrne promises depth, as well. For several of the gay men who participated, it turned out to be a life-changing experience. After years of living as “out and proud” gay men, going back into the closet proved more draining than they had anticipated. Suddenly, they were reminded of how emotionally taxing and spiritually unfulfilling living a false life could be. They left the show vowing never again to take for granted the freedoms they were used to having.

Who knew? The tawdry reality show from the sleazy network has a heart. Now, if only the sit-com with the classy pedigree can find it’s wit.

Playing It Straight” airs on Fox, Fridays at 8:00. “It’s All Relative” airs on ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30.

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