If this is the new normal, count me out
The new crop of fall television series is upon us, and at first glance there is much to celebrate for LGBT viewers, (okay, mostly just for "G" viewers — more on that in a moment).
The number of gay and bisexual characters on scripted broadcast network TV is at its highest-ever level this season, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). In addition to our returning gay and lesbian characters on mainstream hits like Glee (which has now added a young cross-dressing black teen to better round out its queer quotient) and Modern Family, we now have two new sitcoms, Partners and The New Normal, both of which feature gay men as central characters.
As someone who wastes far too much of his free time watching mainstream TV (I don’t have the cable package that lets me watch HBO or FX), I was thrilled to read about these new shows. However, after watching the first few episodes, I’m not so thrilled. In fact, I’m downright depressed. Why? Well, for starters, these gay men are depressingly two-dimensional and stereotypical.
On The New Normal, produced and written by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, we have an upper-middle-class white male couple, Bryan and David, who’ve got everything — great looks, great house, great careers. All that’s missing is a little bundle of joy, and this becomes the show’s focus. The two men find a surrogate mom, Goldie, who’s basically “white trash” with a heart of gold but also comes with a mother (played with vindictive fun by Ellen Barkin) who would make Mitt Romney proud.
The first few episodes of the show have set up some bonding between the gay couple and surrogate mom, who also has an only-found-on-TV wisecracking daughter, as they navigate the bumpy ride of early pregnancy and a hostile surrogate-mother-in-law. Pretty much all that concerns the gay couple is having a baby and starting a family. Family values, even if slightly skewed from the traditional nuclear family model, are pushed relentlessly. In fact, even though the conservative mom is supposed to be a buffoon, I feel like the underlying message of this show is very much a Republican one: families consist of a married couple with good jobs, a house and kids, and that’s all that matters in life.
Partners, which is written and produced by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the duo that created Will & Grace, has a slightly less conventional premise. It is focused on the lifelong friendship between Louis, a gay man (played by Ugly Betty alumnus Michael Urie) and heterosexual Joe. The two are also partners in an architecture firm.
The first few episodes have focused on their slightly unhealthy co-dependency at the same time as both are in long-term relationships. Much is made out of the fact that Joe is getting engaged and Louis can’t help but micro-manage his friend’s love life and tell Joe’s fiancé embarrassing secrets. Louis and his partner are the well-balanced, committed couple in this sitcom and, like The New Normal couple, are middle-class white men with good jobs (but no talk of a baby . . . yet).
Beyond the appalling lack of racial, ethnic or class diversity in this new crop of gay male characters (not to mention the complete absence of "L," "B" and "T" characters in sitcoms), I am saddened to see queer representations that are so narrowly focused in terms of their interests, politics and love lives.
Not that we should expect mainstream American TV to create another L Word or Noah’s Arc, (which weren’t perfect either, but hey, at least we saw lesbians and some men of colour), but has it really come to this? Is queer life in 2012 going to be represented on TV by dull, white, middle-class gay couples who have nothing else to think about but babies or their straight friends’ upcoming nuptials? Is this really our new normal?
I wonder if anyone in network television today would dare to dream of a lesbian version of Roseanne, that great working-class sitcom of the 1980s or a gay version of The Cosby Show, with a wealthy black gay couple and their troublesome teens. Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to see that on our screens any time soon.
In the meantime, I think I’m going to be watching less network television and spending more time at the computer watching web series like Where the Bears Are (life in the “bear” subculture) or Drama Queenz (three young black men trying to make it on Broadway), shows that begin to show the complexity and diversity of our big queer world.
David AB Murray is an associate professor of anthropology and sexuality studies at York University.