The Rainbow Tube: Do We Get The Television We Deserve?
This article is a series of personal views covering a selection of TV programmes. There are of course several others which you may feel should be discussed and your own views may differ greatly from mine. Feel free to react.
It’s tempting to think that we’ve never had it so good regarding LGBT representation on TV and I’m sure lots of TV bosses are patting themselves on the back thinking how progressive and inclusive they are. But is it actually true? There may be more mainstream LGBT visibility on the television than ever before but is it a question of quantity trampling all over quality?
To my mind, we more or less reached parity with heterosexual TV programmes when ‘Queer as Folk’ was first shown on Channel 4 in Britain in 1999 and North America in 2000. Its creator, in association with Channel 4, Russell T Davis then sold the idea to Showtime entertainment and Cowlip productions, (Showcase in Canada); retaining editing rights along the way to keep it from being watered down. From 2000 to 2005, the American production turned out to be as good if not better than the original version. This was partly thanks to a large Canadian contribution. The interior scenes were filmed in Toronto and Canadian directors were able to direct more freely than any US directors could have done. This was despite the fact that the series was supposedly set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The programme wasn’t originally titled ‘Queer as Fuck’ for nothing, because to every LGBT viewer’s delight, gay life was shown in all its glory, with sex and nudity giving it all the spice you needed short of pornography. Issues were addressed, not the least of which was HIV, and heterosexual North America was confronted with parts of gay life as they actually are and not as the ad-men would like us to see them.
Even in Europe, where viewers are more used to challenging scenes of sexuality and violence, ‘Queer as Folk’ had a huge impact and was widely praised. Eyebrows were raised but mainly by newspaper editors looking for ‘Disgusting, Filth’ headlines and in general, the British and later the American series were critically well received.
So what’s happened since then? Did ‘Queer as Folk’ actually set the standard from which all subsequent LGBT-themed TV is measured? The answer is probably yes but sadly little has lived up to that standard since; not even close. Strangely enough, the American ‘Queer as Folk’ was inclusive within the LGBT community almost to the point of cliché. There was the butch anti hero (still don’t quite understand why a straight man had to play that role but if he was playing gay, he played it very convincingly); the doting friend; the friendship group; two strong lesbian roles; a camp man with a heart of gold and inner strength; an everyman character; the obligatory fag hag (played brilliantly by Sharon Gless) and her brother, who was HIV positive. The UK version was shorter and a little more edgy but to their eternal credit, the directors of the American version took the best of the original and added yet more quality to it to make it truly ground-breaking.
The key to its success was the acting. There were no cheesy or corny roles and almost every character was believable and someone you have probably met in your gay travels. Had the acting been of any lower quality, the sex scenes and plot lines would have been seen as sensation for sensation’s sake. Instead, they were integral to the flow.
That should have set the benchmark for the future and twelve years later we should be revelling in excellent quality LGBT-driven TV shows, fighting for Emmy’s and other show biz gongs. So let’s take a look at other gay themed shows of the last twelve years and compare them to ‘Queer as Folk’. Have we progressed or was ‘Queer as Folk’ a flash in the pan?
You can’t talk about gay TV in the last ten years without mentioning the endlessly–repeated ‘Will and Grace’. A landmark show as far as North American TV is concerned and still popular in Europe, it was never regarded as ground-breaking; far too tame for that. That said, the same ingredients are in the ‘Will and Grace’ mix as in most other shows of its type: the camp gay man; his straight-acting counterpart; the fag hag (in this case, two!) and various other gay or gay friendly characters. It also had its hilarious moments but hardly smashes any taboos unless you count the fact that it appeared on mainstream American TV. Again, more often than not saved by the script and the humour but you can’t avoid the fact that Jack’s character was really a hideous cliché.
In 1993 and 1994, ‘Tales of the City’ and ‘More Tales of the City’ were shown on British TV and then on PBS and Showtime in North America as a miniseries. The idea was good, based on the hugely popular books by Armistead Maupin but for one reason or another it never really took off. Here again, a mix of characters both LGBT and straight but they didn’t translate well to the TV format, despite such actors as Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis taking major roles. The problem was that the gay characters came over as wooden and one dimensional. The potential was there but the networks declined to go any further.
Since then, we’ve had overtly gay shows such as ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ on Bravo and ‘One Girl, Five Gays’ on Logo. The latter was a Canadian production that was picked up worldwide but whilst it got to the point as far as an LGBT audience was concerned and although it’s been running for four seasons; its target audience is really too small to ensure mainstream status. ‘Queer Eye’ on the other hand was aimed at straight men (or rather their girlfriends and wives) but once again hammered home the stereotype that gays and fashion or style go together. Carson Cressley provided the high octane camp and thus humour that appears in so many other shows. You get the feeling that producers see this sort of character as being a prerequisite for a straight audience. Women can identify and men aren’t threatened, all of which applies to Cam in ‘Modern Family’, ‘Bryan’ in The New Normal and Jack in ‘Will and Grace’. Compare this to the characterisation in ‘Queer as Folk’ and the credibility gap is enormous.
From 2006 to 2011, ‘Brothers and Sisters’ tried to bridge the ‘realness’ gap by showing its gay characters as ‘normal’ every day guys who you would assume were straight and most people would say that it worked to a large extent. However, the gay plot lines were always subservient to the ‘family’ theme of the show until they adopted a child and created a new ‘family’ within the bigger family thus preserving family values as the central theme. Relatively good and consistent acting plus Dallas/Dynasty types of soap plot lines kept the show interesting until it ran its natural course. However, many would claim that the gay roles were a little too shallow to be taken seriously and truly regarded as ground breaking.
The current show with strong LGBT representation is ‘Glee’ but despite the promising beginning and the immense popularity of this modern ‘Fame’ clone, the writing seems to be on the wall for ‘Glee’. They may be able to squeeze one more series out of it but viewer numbers have tailed off dramatically in the last year. Personally I feel that ‘Glee’ is a chance missed. It’s dominated by its creator Ryan Murphy (who also created ‘The New Normal’) and as such, it seems that the plot lines are becoming thinner by the week. ‘Glee’ has always been known for living in its own particular universe in terms of chronological anomalies and plot consistency. However, whereas in the beginning the viewer was prepared to suspend disbelief, as the Glee club launched into 30 piece orchestral arrangements in the school music room and characters met seemingly fatal accidents yet re-emerged unscathed, lately that has just seemed tired and irritating. The music was and is of good quality and that must have launched the whole Gleeks phenomenon but a necessary rejuvenation of the cast has not caught on with the public and old cast members returning seem somewhat ‘forced’. Even dragging in the Sarah Jessica Parkers of this world has seemed a frankly desperate tactic!
There was however, one LGBT theme that really hit home and became ‘Glee’s high point in the history of gay TV and that was when Kurt was being bullied by the school jock, who then turned out to be closeted and gay. Thanks to strong acting, those scenes made Glee iconic but they couldn’t keep them up. With a lack of realistic and meaningful issues, the frailties of Glee have become ever more apparent. The characters are a smorgasbord of politically correct representatives of society. The black, Asian, disabled, straight, misfit and of course, gay, lesbian and cross-dresser characters could have provided endless powerful storylines which could have genuinely made a difference if handled in the same way as the bullying issue. However, without good scripts, these characters become nothing more than cartoons or at best, caricatures.
Despite huge media exposure that has made them all starlets, you wonder where these people will go now. Broadway may be the best most of them can hope for and Leah Michele may never escape endless ribbing from the ‘Fashion Police’ crew for her red carpet pouting. I can’t personally see Chris Colfer (Kurt Hummel) playing anything else than versions of himself in the future. It’s sad but these were actors tailored to their roles and typecast to the last note; they may disappear without trace. The two actors who will always have an acting future are Jane Lynch (Sue Sylvester) and Kurt’s father Burt, played by Mike O’Malley. In their own different ways, these two bring depth to the show and manage to actually say something about society. It’s ironic that Jane Lynch is a lesbian role model in real life and acidly scathing of all things liberal in the show but she has become iconic as a result.
So to my mind, the Glee furore is almost over and now we can see that it actually wasn’t that ground-breaking after all. It repeated the ‘Fame’ formula and despite its best efforts, filled it with plastic and one dimensional stereotypes. Some people have accused Glee of being so stereotypical that it has actually increased stigma against LGBT people; there may be an element of truth in that; time will tell. Is there anything else currently running then, that could possibly compete with the brilliance and forward thinking of ‘Queer as Folk’?
An Emmy winner three years running; ‘Modern Family’ started in 2009 and superficially has many of the same ingredients of ‘Queer as Folk’ although it has to be said that it’s a comedy and not a drama series. It’s funny in parts and the gay roles are prominent. It’s an ensemble cast centred on three interrelated families which are in turns dysfunctional and meant to reflect foibles in society. The gay characters are probably meant to be slight caricatures (one extremely camp and the other less so) and when the scripts slacken off even a little, appear clichéd to the extreme. Again, the show is saved by good acting but if only the other two components of the extended family were LGBT the show would be more credible because they are intrinsically funnier and actually much ‘gayer’.
The new trend is the parent/child interaction in TV gay relationships. Mothers and their gay sons have long been fodder for comedy but when the gay couple has a child of their own, this is new. It’s repeated in ‘The New Normal’, which could be said to be ‘Glee’ grown up and left school (and has the same creator) and has also been seen in several gay themed films. The child is often world-wise and used to deliver the antidote to societal judgement through his or her asides in the script. However, adding the child bomb to bolster the argument for gay marriage and gay normality, only works if the parents are non-stereotypical and under no circumstances could Mitchell and Cameron from ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Bryan and David’ in The New Normal be seen as anything other than stereotypes. Well-meant maybe but realistic...I don’t think so. To subdue the more extreme audience reactions, there is always a strong heterosexual female presence to act as moral watchdog (the birth mother and grandmother in ‘The New Normal’ and the other close, female, family members in ‘Modern Family’). It’s a bit of a cop-out really and when you compare it to the gritty story lines of adopting a teenager and having a baby in a lesbian relationship that breaks up, as in ‘Queer as Folk’...well the timing should have been the other way round. ‘Queer as Folk’ should have been the progression from shows like ‘The New Normal’ and ‘Modern Family’, instead of the other way round.
Other series like ‘Happy Endings’, ‘Torchwood’, ‘True Blood’ and even unexpectedly, ‘Downton Abbey’ are attempting to improve LGBT visibility on screen by making the gay characters incidental to the main action. They may be gay, or lesbian or transvestite but that is clearly not the issue in the overall themes of the shows. It’s a case of; these people are gay and this is how they sometimes live but it’s no big deal. There is lots of British and Canadian input in these shows, in terms of direction and actors and thereby hangs a tale of how these issues can be modernised. US TV bosses are still reluctant to play the gay card unless it’s a stereotype that is clearly defined and can be judged accordingly. The British and Canadians are much more sophisticated and subtle and know how to win audiences over with realistic and often sympathetic portrayals. What do you first think of when you hear the title ‘True Blood’ for instance? Vampires; shape shifters; the deep South and above all, blood! The fact that there are lip-licking men who regularly strip off and that some of them are gay or at least bisexual; plus the odd lesbian vampire and a superbly acted transvestite in major roles, is a bonus but no big deal and the show appeals to a cross-section of society. ‘True Blood’ has also somewhat lost the plot in its last series, as convoluted story lines make watching it a puzzle. This suggests that it has reached the end of its natural life but its atmosphere, thrilling storylines and good acting mean that it’s a step forward in LGBT representation on the television.
‘Torchwood’ is also a bit of a ground-breaker in that it brings gay characters into science fiction in the same way that True Blood does for fantasy. It started off as a low budget BBC series but has translated well across the Atlantic despite American insistence on the toning down of some gay scenes. Many people may not be aware but it’s actually a Doctor Who spin-off and as such still has a touch of the polystyrene sets and unbelievable storylines that made Doctor Who so successful. The fact that the lead character is an out and out sexual man, who’s mostly gay, seems not to have created the uproar that you might have expected and Torchwood is well on the way to cult status. It also seems to have succeeded in showing gay characters, where films like ‘Star Trek’ and series like ‘Caprica’ have failed.
When an archetypal BBC costume drama like ‘Downton Abbey’ brings in gay plot lines, you know the world has turned on its axis but once again it’s well acted and subtly portrayed, revealing the attitudes of the times. Nobody could accuse ‘Downton Abbey’ of being great acting but its well-written soap plots have got audiences hooked across the world. Quietly introducing a credible gay element is symbolically important for LGBT representation in 2012 – not earth shattering but a good sign for the future.
In conclusion, to my mind nothing has emerged since ‘Queer as Folk’ to challenge its status as best gay-themed show ever. Modern shows tend to be formulaic and use far too many stereotypes (and I haven’t even mentioned ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’!). They veer away from gritty realism because they are desperate for viewing figures and rankings to ensure repeat series being made. Producers and writers think they are being innovative by introducing gay marriage and adoption issues but the characters behind them lack enough depth to make them credible and LGBT humour is constantly delivered by outworn stereotypes who promote camp bitchiness as our comedy niche. Soaps in the UK and the rest of Europe invariably have gay storylines and some work better than others but Joe public doesn’t bat an eyelid anymore and that indicates their success in bringing gay life into what’s seen as the normal mainstream view of society as a whole. However, television’s mega bucks are still made in North America and syndicated shows sold across the world are still mainly US-made. There, the ability (or will) to modernise the LGBT profile seems to be lacking. Who dares doesn’t win in that sort of atmosphere and even Hollywood hasn’t moved on from ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Milk’.
The best series ever from an LGBT viewpoint is now twelve years old and we haven’t moved very far since but in the States, it’s still all to do with money and pleasing Middle America or the political and religious right. The last US election saw politicians claiming that there was a homosexual plot to destroy society. Daring new TV series aren’t likely to make much headway in the near future in that sort of climate. Hopefully countries like Britain and Canada will continue to push the boundaries backed up by great work coming out of other European countries such as Spain and Germany. Maybe the future lies in web series like ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Where the Bears Are’ although at the moment, these fall victim to financial squeezes after promising starts.
YouTube, Vimeo and the like may also be able to play a role in the future, as viewers latch on to new ways of viewing film. As for HIV on the TV; it might as well be the Bubonic Plague for the amount of coverage it currently gets. Queer as Folk once again set the benchmark and included it as a fact of life but we shouldn’t hold our breath while waiting for Blaine, or Cam, or the blood soaked vampires to finally fall foul of the virus.