EDGE 10.0 :: The Decade in TV
When EDGE began as a Boston-based website in 2004, the LGBT community was no longer invisible on the TV landscape.
Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show had premiered the year before and was already well on its way to dominating the ratings as a daytime syndicated talk show. "Will & Grace" had taken its place as a linchpin on NBC’s primetime schedule. Most significantly, "Queer As Folk" had become Showtime’s long-awaited series to counter the critical and popular acclaim of shows found on its longtime premier-channel rival HBO. Its success spawned another hit Showtime series: the lesbian-themed "The L-Word," which premiered the same year EDGE did.
Although "Will & Grace" was certainly a breakthrough show, it played down the sex. Far from ignoring the bedroom, "Queer As Folk" broke the final TV taboo by unabashedly portraying the couplings of the various characters. Rather than shunning it, the American public made "Queer As Folk" a hit. The big surprise was that so many heterosexual women apparently enjoyed playing voyeur to gay men’s sexual hijinks.
As Killian Melloy noted when the show finished its run in 2005, as the show progressed, it shed the story arc of the British series on which it was based and "the show shifted tone, grew bolder and -- while never shedding its silly, soapy edge -- eventually became a sharp, sometimes strident, means for analysis and debate on the American gay scene and the larger, often hostile, culture in which it exists."
It became a touchstone for American gay men, with plot lines and characters questioning assimilation and monogamy. It also never apologized for its characters enjoying a night of clubbing. In the final episodes, it got political, as the characters did battle against a ballot initiative to deny them the rights of married couples.
"’Queer as Folk,’" Melloy wrote, "was never a huge hit on a ’Will & Grace’ scale, but it didn’t need to be: it was more honest, more overt, and it boasted full frontal male nudity. It was never strong, hard-hitting drama like ’The Sopranos,’ but it wasn’t supposed to be that, either; it was both a wish fulfillment and a forum for the issues of the day as seen from a spectrum of gay perspectives."
Another breakthrough show, "Degrassi: The Next Generation," squarely faced the reality that, by high school, teenagers have a pretty good idea what they like -- and, more importantly, not apologizing for it or making it seem pathological or even premature for them to make out and more.
On FX, the drama series "Nip/Tuck," co-created by Ryan Murphy who also develop "Glee" and "American Horror Story," was the first such program to make a transgender character a central part of the action without portraying her as a victim. The show continued to feature LGBT characters throughout its run, which ended in 2010, including a secondary transgender character.
On here!, the only gay channel at the time, there was "Dante’s Cove," a slightly campy melodrama where humpy men found every excuse to take off their shirts while battling mysterious forces of evil. By the third and last season in 2007, it had at least grown "from the gay men’s answer to late-night Cinemax to an actually camp adventure featuring lots of gratuitous male nudity," according to an EDGE reviewer, "a fun little show that offers gay men their own version of ’Charmed’ or ’Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’"
In 2005, MTV Networks launched amid great fanfare Logo, the first basic cable channel dedicated to LGBT programming. Its trophy program was "Noah’s Arc," the first (and thus far, only) TV series depicting the lives of black gay men.
An EDGE columnist praised the show for "tackling tough subjects with unflinching honesty," such as "the way gay men have a tendency to worship the heterosexual image. In white culture, it’s the whole Abercrombie model obsession."
In 2007, reviewing the second season, an EDGE reviewer also noted how "Noah’s Arc" was "not afraid of exploring hot-button issues like HIV, homophobia and down low culture." Unfortunately, that was also the show’s last season. Scripted drama proved too expensive for a fledgling network that continued to struggle in the ratings until it finally found its niche several years later via drag diva RuPaul’s reality series "RuPaul’s Drag Race."
The Isaiah Washington controversy
Meanwhile, on network TV, "Grey’s Anatomy," which premiered in 2005 on ABC, was a dramatic hit series that didn’t shy away from gay themes. It was off screen, however, that provided the greatest controversy when in 2006 reports surfaced that Isaiah Washington called another actor, T.R. Knight, a "faggot." Knight subsequently publicly came out and a year later, Washington was dropped from the show.
Washington quickly tried to backtrack, maintaining that he used the slur against Knight while having a private disagreement with co-star Patrick Dempsey and even citing racism as the real reason for his dismissal. But then, Washington began making amends. He starred in gay-tolerance ads and even contributed to a fund battling California’s Proposition 8.
Seven years after being fired, EDGE reported on March 7 that Washington would return to the show for a guest appearance.
Pay cable pushes the envelope
Other network series like "Ugly Betty," "Heroes," "Brothers & Sisters" and "Gossip Girl," continued the mainstreaming of gay characters. AMC’s breakout hit "Mad Men," a drama set in the world of New York ad agencies in the early 1960s, featured several closeted gay characters sympathetically, such as Sal and Kurt, who worked in the agency’s art department; and Carol, roommate and (barely) secret admirer of the office manager.
Not surprisingly, it was the pay-cable channels that continued to push the envelope.
HBO’s vampire-themed "True Blood" had a number of gay subplots, including a closeted head of a Christian ministry who comes out -- as a vampire and gay man; and a right-wing politician who goes on the down low with a male prostitute. The main character on Netflix’s prison drama "Orange Is the New Black" took a fall for her lesbian lover and features a transgender woman (played, it should be noted, by a real-life transgender actress Laverne Cox).
On Showtime, "United States of Tara," the teenage son of the main characters is gay. A gay interracial couple are their neighbors. Marshall’s high school classmates include a conflicted love interest, a boyfriend who founds the school’s gay-straight alliance, and one openly gay teen.
If "Queer As Folk" brought the sex lives of everyday gay men into the American living room, Starz’ "Spartacus" unabashedly veered just this side of gay porn fantasy. Super-buff Roman gladiators, seldom clad in much more than a jock strap. "Spartacus," wrote EDGE’s Jim Halterman, gives "viewers everything they could ask for -- naked men, naked women, lots of sex (even gay sex), excessive violence and a story of revenge."
One character commits suicide after his lover is executed; two others become lovers while helping the title character fight their Roman overlords. "The Roman attitude towards eros and nudity being what it was," wrote Killian Melloy, "the show’s overt sexuality is, like its depictions of gladiatorial violence, at least somewhat accurate (if likely exaggerated)."
Out on the news
Here in the contemporary real world, CNN has had a trifecta of high-profile on-air journalists coming out, beginning in 2006, when Thomas Roberts publicly acknowledged he was gay by appearing at an annual convention of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. In 2011, Don Lemon came out in a memoir. But the big news-not-really happened the next year, when Anderson Cooper confirmed what everybody already knew.
"Over the years, rumors persisted that Cooper is gay, but he eluded the issue, often being coy about it," . "For some, the announcement wasn’t so much breaking news." One blogger tweeted, "Also breaking: Sun rises in East, sets in West"; another, "Anderson Cooper comes out of the world’s draftiest closet."
Time to mainstream
The last few years have seen LGBT characters and situations become so mainstream that most of us take them for granted.
On ABC’s hit "Scandal," the White House chief of staff is openly gay and in a long-term relationship. Set in the world of Broadway, "Smash" would have been notable if it hadn’t featured several gay characters.
Two gay-themed sitcoms, "The New Normal," about a gay couple having a child via a surrogate; and "Partners," a bromance about a gay and straight man bombed. So it’s good news that NBC has green lighted a sitcom to be produced by DeGeneres about a gay and straight best friends who decide to have a baby.
No show in recent history, however, has had the impact of "Modern Family." The hit series -- ABC’s shining ratings star and perennial Emmy winner -- has been justly lauded for its matter-of-fact presentation of two gay parenting a child.
Characters in a negative light?
In what perhaps is the greatest sign of mainstream acceptance, gay characters are seen in a negative light.
On USA’s "Political Animals," the son of a former president is a meth-using mess who has an affair with a closeted congressman and attempts suicide. On Netflix’s hit political drama, "House of Cards," the show’s anti-hero is revealed to have had a fling with a male classmate in college. He and his wife also have a threesome with a hot secret-service agent.
On the other hand, the character is played by Kevin Spacey. An actor who himself is widely reported to be a closeted gay man, "House of Cards" also points to how Hollywood has yet to go in accepting us as we are.
TV’s gain is movies’ loss
The decade ended with television picking up what the film industry steered clear of when HBO picked up director Steven Soderbergh’s "Behind the Candelabra," his long delayed Hollywood film based on the last year’s of Liberace’s life. Despite stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, the director couldn’t get backing from a major studio. Enter HBO, which financed the film and reaped its commercial and critical success. The film, which followed Liberace’s stormy relationship with his personal assistant-turned-life partner Scott Thorson, went on to win 11 Emmy Awards.
HBO also scored with "Looking," a series set in San Francisco that follows the lives of three gay men there. With shades of "Sex and the City" and "Girls," the series found its own voice with its intimate tone and realistic view of SF gay life. The series also has roots in the movies: its executive producer Andrew Haigh directed the hit 2012 gay-themed romance "Weekend" and he brings the low-key style from the film to the series. While some have called it less-than-inclusive and, well, boring, enough viewers have embraced its unique approach, and the show, which just completed its first season, has been renewed for a second.