This is a test: Which couple in the following scenarios is unlike the others?
A) After being dumped by her fiancé, a woman drugs and rapes his stepbrother, a priest, in an elaborate revenge plot against the priest’s mother for orchestrating the break-up.
B) A man cheats on his fiancée to help cover up her “murder” of a neighborhood villain who eventually turns out to be alive.
C) An Italian mobster sends a dirty cop to the hospital room of his ex-wife’s comatose recent paramour to “cut it off” (his manhood, that is).
D) A young man invites his live-in lover’s ex, with whom the live-in lover has a newborn daughter, to move in with the baby.
If you answered D, you’re correct, and not just because it’s the only one with neither nefariousness nor ulterior motives on the dramatic menu. All four scenarios involve current or former couples on Days of Our Lives, NBC’s sole remaining daytime soap, but only one, Will Horton and Sonny Kiriakis, qualifies as its first gay supercouple.
They stand out from the others in another significant way that has nothing to do with sexual identity: As several Days characters have pointed out, Will and Sonny just might be the happiest couple in Salem, the soap’s fictional Midwestern setting.
In the nearly two years since Will and Sonny became “WilSon” (as they’re affectionately known by fans), they’ve weathered the requisite multiple soap storms: blackmail, a murder trial, secrets and lies, homophobia and even a madman’s bullet that nearly killed Will. Through each ordeal, they’ve emerged a little stronger than they were going into it. Now they’re facing what might be their greatest challenge yet: marriage. Last month, Will and Sonny said “I do” in daytime’s first legal gay wedding and possibly the first in Days history not to be derailed by some tawdry revelation (see A above, the spoiler of Days’ last almost-nuptials).
If you’re asking the obvious question facing any solid couple – How do they do it? – consider another: How did a show with such strong religious and moral overtones, one with a priest as a romantic lead, one in which a main character was once possessed by Satan himself, one with a leading lady (Melissa Reeves, who plays Will’s aunt Jennifer Devereaux) who faced major backlash two years ago for supporting Chick-fil-A on Twitter, become arguably TV’s greatest champion of gay romance?
How far we’ve come from the days of Matt Fielding and his succession of interchangeable boyfriends on Melrose Place, who never got so much as an onscreen kiss. Not only do Will and Sonny get to make out like straight couples do, but they’re regularly shown in flagrante delicto and basking shirtless in post-coitus afterglow. How often do we get to see that on a major network – and in the middle of the afternoon?!
Now that the honeymoon, if not the honeymoon period, is over for “WilSon,” they’re on the verge of a nasty custody battle with Gabriella Hernandez, the mother of Will’s daughter, and her homophobic ex-con/evil-genius boyfriend, Nick Fallon (who happens to be Will’s cousin), over baby Arianna. Normally, the gay would-be custodial parents wouldn’t stand much of a chance, but in a revolutionary twist, Will and Sonny might actually have the edge. As Nick himself recently pointed out, they’re two happily married men with a steady income offering a stable home. What court wouldn’t look upon them favorably?
Can two young gay men actually live and love like that, completely out of the closet, as passionately and devotedly as straight couples, and in a nurturing environment, even in the eyes of the law? On TV comedies, it seems, usually only with minimal physical contact and at least one guy ranging from moderately stereotypical (see Modern Family and the now-defunct Desperate Housewives) to a Jack (of Will & Grace) in the box labeled “gay” (see Glee and the now-defunct The New Normal). It’s hard to imagine Will or Sonny listening to show tunes, obsessing over pop divas or discussing the finer points of Prada and Versace. And if they were, they’d definitely be holding hands while doing it.
In TV’s dramatic realm, Will and Sonny are unique not because they’re interesting characters with sex lives who happen to be gay. The networks have improved drastically on this point in recent years, finally giving gay characters more to do than wring their hands over coming out, homophobia and AIDS, and in the case of Scandal and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, featuring them in solid, long-term relationships. What elevates Will and Sonny to groundbreaking status is their youth, their location (Smalltown, U.S.A., far from the coastal gay meccas of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco), and that their domestic stability (and sex life!) is so front-and-center on Days, which devoted three episodes in April to a gay wedding.
Young gays in modern dramas, though less overtly stereotypical than the ones in sitcoms (even Lafayette on True Blood has a significant masculine streak), tend to be more romantically challenged and often even more screwed up than the straight people around them. Over on Revenge, in the space of a half-season, we saw Patrick Osbourne, Virginia Grayson’s gay, long-lost son, murder two men, including his biological father. He and Mickey Milkovich on Shameless would make an excellent match if Patrick were to return from his apprenticeship in Italy and move to Chicago.
Two states down, on Nashville, gay country singer Will Lexington, whose shame over his sexuality made him suicidal, has married his beard, a fellow rising country star that he can’t get it up for in bed. Then there are the guys on Looking: They cruise in the park, cavort with gigolos, have threesomes and cheat on their boyfriends.
They make Will and Sonny, who still only have eyes for each other, look like choir boys, the monogamous romantic equivalent, some might say, of “passing for straight.” Perhaps they’d take it further and criticize their union for being too closely modeled on traditional straight relationships. That’s an argument for another op-ed, but it doesn’t make “WilSon” any less of a valid representation of another gay reality, one that might be more inviting to young people who are struggling with coming out than anything we’ve seen on Looking.
So far, the reaction has been generally positive. There’s been no significant backlash, and the show, like the other three remaining daytime soaps, continues to enjoy improved ratings. It’s also garnering more critical acclaim than it has since the ’90s. Chandler Massey, who played Will for four years before being replaced by Guy Wilson in January, won two consecutive Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Younger Actor, in 2012 and 2013, and the show itself won for Outstanding Drama Series last year.
Of course, daytime drama’s golden rule – The couple that stays together doesn’t stay frontburner for long – will probably eventually apply to “WilSon,” too. But they’ve already lasted long enough to make TV history while setting a positive example for viewers, fellow Days couples and the industry. May it be the beginning of a more balanced presentation of what it means to be young and gay, one that will offer hope that life can do more than get better. It can be better.
JEREMY HELLIGAR is a Cape Town-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in People, Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Time Out, and his own blog, Theme for Great Cities. He’s working on his first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, a travelogue/memoir about his expat experience. Follow him on Twitter @Theme4Gr8Cities.