Outword Magazine

December 22, 2003

TV 2003 – “Gay” Goes Mainstream by Dave Rupel

Gay themed TV seemed to be everywhere in 2003. So let’s take a look back at a year that can best be described as the good, the bad and the ho-hum.

Biggest story of the year. Okay, even your grandmother in Indiana could answer this one. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was the TV story of the year, gay or straight. Sure, some thought the Fab Five were a little too queer and perpetuated negative stereotypes. And if truth be told, the show’s ratings weren’t nearly as large as the publicity would lead you to believe. When the show first started airing in the summer, it drew only about 1/3 of the audience that other reality shows For Love Or Money and Who Wants to Marry My Dad? received.

The lesson to be learned? In Hollywood, it’s all about perception. And right now, the Fab Five are “it”. Since nothing spells success more than imitation, expect to see many Queer Eye rip-offs in the new year. One show where gay men make over drab straight women, and another where straight men teach gay men how to use tools have already been announced.

We’re Here, We’re Queer… Zzzzzzzz. There are lots of theories abounding about why Queer Eye is such a hit. I go with the obvious. It’s entertaining. Carson’s bitchy comments are funny, Kyan is movie star handsome and the happy endings are genuinely sweet. On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Amazing Race. Don’t get me wrong – the show itself is top-notch. It won the first Reality Emmy Award – and deserved it. I’m talking about its winning gay duo of Chip and Reichen. Blessed with good looks and gym bodies, Chip and Reichen single-handedly proved to all of America that gay men can be just as dull and boring as our straight counterparts. The couple, who insisted on being referred to as “married”, even copied the average married couple in America by divorcing after the show hit the air.

Best Surprise. The premise of Boy Meets Boy, where it’s bachelor, James, was unaware that some of his suitors were straight, was the latest in Must Squirm TV – reality shows based on tricking it’s unknowing participants, such as Joe Millionaire, Joe Schmo and Average Joe – and then watching their reactions. At first glance, Boy’s premise seemed repugnant and a huge step backward for the gay community. But the producers handled the tricky subject with such sensitivity that the final result turned out to be an interesting social experiment. None of the straight guys overplayed their gay roles and all seemed genuinely interested in seeing if they could break down stereotypes. Not bad for the first gay dating show. But speaking of which…

Biggest Sourpuss. To James, of Boy Meets Boy. Like most central figures of reality shows, James made the usual press rounds promoting his show. But unlike most others, James chose to badmouth Boy, going on and on about his “betrayal.” Admittedly, it must be a scary notion to realize you’ve been fooled on national television – but c’mon, James, lighten up! Take a lesson from Average Joe’s Melana or Joe Schmo’s Matt, both of whom handled their shocking twists with grace and good humor.

Most Improved Show. When Queer as Folk debuted a few years back, much of the press focused on the good-looking cast and shockingly graphic sex scenes. Overlooked was the fact that the writing was often trite and the actors… well, let’s just say they looked better than they acted. While many people embraced QAF, others criticized it for being too promiscuous and not representing the entire gay community. In response, the show often took a defensive tone that was more bitter than entertaining.

But something good happened in Season 3. Somewhere along the line, perhaps after all the fuss died away, the producers seemed to relax. No longer preoccupied with justifying its existence, QAF went back to good old-fashioned storytelling. The result? Better stories, more natural dialogue –and in the biggest surprise – Gale Harold (Brian) is showing unexpected depth, finally proving that he’s more than just a handsome face.

For years, I watched QAF because it was the only gay drama on TV. What a pleasure it is to say I now watch simply because it’s good.

Most Disappointing Show. Maybe we’re just spoiled. For years, Will and Grace delighted us with its razor-sharp wit and sublime performances – even if Will’s non-existent love life was frustrating. But now? The writing is forced, Jack and Karen have become cartoons, and how can everyone in the world realize Harry Connick, Jr. isn’t funny except NBC? The one bright spot? Blythe Danner’s role as Will’s needy, newly divorced mother. Danner slings bitchy one-liners the way Megan Mullally’s Karen did in her prime. Will’s mom was also a key figure in the show’s latest (and lamest) attempt to give Will a love life. After great fanfare of hiring The Practice’s Dylan McDermott to play the love interest, the show chickened out once again. They made McDermott’s character so inane and ridiculous that it killed his enormous sex appeal (not something easy to do) and made Will look foolish for chasing after him at the same time. Worse than that, it broke the first rule of comedy.
It wasn’t funny.

It’s About Time. While we’re complaining about the lack of Will’s love life in primetime, it’s only fair to extend kudos to daytime’s All My Children, which (finally) gave us daytime’s first romantic lesbian kiss. Bianca, daughter of über-vixen Erica Kane, first came out of the closet in 2000. Instantly a hit with fans, the character became everyone’s best friend, while languishing without a romantic interest of her own. That changed this year when Bianca locked lips with the exotic Lena. Played for genuine emotion instead of shock value, it was one of the high points of the year for AMC – and daytime.

Worst Trend. On the other end of the spectrum were all the fake “lesbian” kisses inundating the airwaves. First, it was Tatu, the Russian teenage singing duo, whose lesbian-themed video steamed up MTV and became a worldwide hit. Great, except for one thing: the girls aren’t lesbians.

And what else can be said about Madonna’s phony liplock with Britney Spears? Of course, it was a calculated ploy for publicity and yes, it probably aroused a lot more people than it offended. But what is this telling the viewing audience? That it’s cool for women to kiss each other – as long as we know (wink, wink) that they’re really straight? When real life gay kisses are still causing controversy – such as the one on the Tony Awards between winning Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman & Scott Whittman – fake ones do us no good.

Best Show. There are simply no words to describe the breathtaking beauty of HBO’s Angels in America. A tragic reminder of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, it also managed to make spirituality tangible and joyous as it reminds you that TV – at its best – can be art.

Most Significant Achievement. ABC’s It’s All Relative. Never heard of it? You wouldn’t be alone. Largely overlooked by both the straight and gay media, Relative is a pleasant sitcom about two gay dads, whose adopted daughter marries a man with conservative, blue-collar parents.

So what makes the show so significant? Its total lack of notoriety. If a show about gay parents had premiered ten years ago – even five years ago – it would have been blasted by the right wing and embraced by gays everywhere. But in 2003? Hardly a ripple on the radar. Even more shocking is the fact that Christopher Sieber, the handsome actor who plays one of the dads, has been very open about the fact that he is gay in real life, too.
And still, nothing.

Let’s face it. In 2003, there were so many Queer Eyes and Amazing Racers and Angels that we’ve managed to become something we never thought possible: ordinary.

That sound you hear on your TV isn’t static. It’s the sound of the mainstream.

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