Gay characters increase in complexity, if not frequency
EmptyWhen "Will & Grace" ended its eight-year run last year, gay-media advocates bemoaned the loss of the only network primetime TV series showcasing the lives of homosexuals. And though gay characters haven't since dominated any single network show, industry observers say that progress in depicting gays on network television is nonetheless being made in a perhaps unexpected way: the emergence of a lead character whose sexual orientation is only part of the story.
Kevin Walker, one of the lead characters on ABC's drama "Brothers & Sisters" (created and executive produced by Jon Robin Baitz), is frequently singled out as the most substantial depiction of a gay man on network primetime television to date. Part of what makes the character -- played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys -- so rich, advocates say, is that his sexual orientation isn't his entire raison d'etre but simply part of a complex fabric of personality.
"The gay-character story line is no longer the novelty," says Brian Graden, entertainment president of MTV Networks Music Group and president of Logo. "The character on 'Brothers & Sisters' is as complicated and human as everyone else."
The Walker character enters the conversation in a year when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals remain only a tiny proportion of regular characters on network series -- less than 2% -- according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which is set to host its 18th annual GLAAD Media Awards on Saturday at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. Yet, the quality of some characters' lives continues to improve, showing them to be people who are successfully integrated into their family and work environments, much like a large proportion of gay Americans.
Another hit show with a breakthrough character that is garnering attention is ABC's "Ugly Betty," which features a young boy who is smitten with fashion magazines and musicals and who also is fully embraced by his Hispanic family. Betty's nephew Justin Suarez (Mark Indelicato) is joined by broadly drawn, out-there gay men at the fashion magazine where she works, most notably the editor's bitchy assistant Marc St. James, played by Michael Urie. The show also features Rebecca Romijn as a woman born as a man.
"Betty" writer and executive producer Silvio Horta says the show has benefited from the success of "Will & Grace." "Whatever fears that network execs may have had a few years ago don't really exist," he says. "If you ask the question, 'Are we going too far?' -- we've never been told, 'Don't do that.'"
ABC also is breaking ground in daytime soaps, an area traditionally ahead of primetime in introducing challenging social issues of the day. Its stalwart "All My Children" now features a transgender character who seeks out medical information from her doctor and support from a group of people going through the gender transition -- people cast with real-life transsexuals. To do the honors, the show brought back Freddie "Zarf," an androgynous musician played by Jeffrey Carlson; on New Year's Eve, the rock star formerly known as Zarf was unveiled as "Zoe." The character was created by former head writer Megan McTavish and was inspired in part by 2005's "Transamerica."
"Because you have the luxury in daytime of telling a story in real time as opposed to a movie of the week or episodic TV, you can bring an audience along on a real social journey," executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers says. But she cautions that charting unexplored territory on television still requires dexterity.
"You stand the chance of alienating your audience," she says. "The goal is to keep the show fresh by bringing things to the forefront before they're all over the place, and surprise the audience in a good way. You're taking them on a journey they didn't expect, so you tap into the human element. We focus on what's alike by using narrow-minded characters to point out the differences so you have the opportunity to highlight the things we have in common."
While daytime dramas have historically mined news-making social issues for story fodder, audiences are receptive because the culture is becoming more adventurous as well, insiders say.
"In the late '70s, when 'All My Children' tried to explore a lesbian relationship and the ratings tanked, it was written out," said Brian Frons, president, daytime, Disney-ABC Television Group. "Compare that to the coming out of Bianca (Eden Riegel, who plays the daughter of Susan Lucci's character, Erica) growing into a popular character whose love story was embraced. It's a change in society and a change in the network because we're willing to give them time to let that happen."
Indeed, one of the biggest changes in the entertainment landscape is the willingness of audiences to go along for the ride. "I think society is simply evolving, and it's going in the right direction," says Paul Colichman, co-founder of here! Networks, which caters to an LGBT audience.
Society's acceptance of the images that television presents inevitably raises the eternal chicken-and-egg question: If shows about people outside the mainstream are getting good ratings, how much does television's ability to bring them into America's living rooms make them seem less strange and therefore more palatable?
Bravo senior vp programming and production Andy Cohen recalls the impact of seeing the late AIDS activist Pedro Zamora on MTV's "The Real World: San Fran-cisco" in the early '90s, at about the time Cohen graduated from college. "That was a real gay person, and it was so huge," Cohen says. "Somehow, gay people became mainstays on reality television. You always had to have a gay guy."
Bravo's hit reality show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was key to that trend. The network's current generation of reality shows, such as "Top Design" and "Top Chef," is rife with gay people, but unlike "Queer Eye," they're not there because they're gay, Cohen notes. The evolution of gay people on reality shows is running along a parallel track to that of characters on scripted shows: Their sexual orientation is incidental to their reason for being there.
"When we're casting these shows, we're looking for the best people, the most talented chefs and designers," Cohen says. "We look to showcase pop culture and the culture around us, and I think there are a lot of gay people involved in the fabric of pop culture and the fields we look at."
Cable television has long been ahead of the networks in featuring the lives of gays on reality and scripted series, including in such shows as "Six Feet Under" and Showtime's "The L Word." Cable continues to outshine broadcast in terms of the sheer number of regular gay characters, with 35 -- including Liz Cruz (Roma Maffia) on FX's "Nip/Tuck" and Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) on HBO's "The Wire" -- to the networks' 15, by GLAAD's count. Still, cable's embrace of alternate lifestyles has helped open the door for gay characters on broadcast.
"There have been wonderful, realistic portrayals on cable, and they sit right next to network channels," says "Brothers & Sisters" executive producer Greg Berlanti. "They're one click away, and you have to compete with how real your stories are (on broadcast). If their stories are outlandish, you have to be effective to compete and stand out. They're playing by a different set of rules, but I think one elevates the other."
Berlanti also credits a younger generation of executives who grew up seeing gay characters on television and who are now attaining positions of power. "I think that people 30 and younger, for the most part, are much more open. The same is true of execs. As the new generation comes in, they want to see stories that are truthful and realistic."
As Ellen DeGeneres marks the 10th anniversary of her coming-out party on her sitcom -- a reveal that threatened to topple her career -- she can look back from the aerie of one of the most prestigious gigs for a comedian on network television: Oscar emcee. While that role certainly indicates a significant shift, many caution that there are still miles to go before gay advocates sleep.
"We're still sorely underrepresented," says Ilene Chaiken, creator, writer and executive producer of "L Word." "If 'The L Word' went off the air, it would be a desert for representation of lesbians. My hope is that when the time comes, we'll have passed the torch, and I don't think it has happened yet."
Jason LaPadura, a casting director whose credits include NBC's "Heroes" and "Crossing Jordan" and the seminal 1990 AIDS film "Longtime Companion," says gays won't be adequately represented in front of the camera until there are more behind the camera. "When I'm in a network session for casting, there aren't a whole lot of gay people in the room," he says. "There are lots of gay people in casting, and there are gay writers, but there aren't a whole lot of gay people at the studios and networks in positions of power."
Still, GLAAD president Neil Giuliano thinks the landscape for gay characters on television will continue to improve. "I'm optimistic because the visibility of lesbian and gay people in society is increasing all the time. More people are living openly. That gives a greater comfort level to people who produce television and film to say, 'It's not like we're telling a story that's secret anymore. They're entertaining stories, and they're stories that should be told.'"