By Daniel Reynolds
Originally published on Advocate.com April 18 2014 12:41 PM ET
Wilson Cruz was a fitting moderator for last night’s advance screening and panel discussion of MTV’s Faking It, an upcoming romantic comedy about two high school girls “faking” a lesbian relationship in order to become popular.
In his youth the GLAAD spokesman became a pioneer in television history when his character, Rickie, came out as gay on ABC’s My So-Called Life. But whereas Rickie experienced high school as a battleground of bullies where the "fear of people's reaction [to a gay youth] was very real," as Cruz recalled, Faking It’s Hester High School embraces all things queer.
“Bullying isn’t even an issue. It’s completely bypassed. That's what makes this show so progressive,” said Michael J. Willett (G.B.F.) at a special event held Thursday at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. On the show, the 24-year-old actor portrays Shane, a gay teen who is both out and popular. His golden status as the cool kid even inspires the social-climbing Karma (Katie Stevens) to convince her more demure best friend, Amy (Rita Volk), to fake a romantic relationship. The ruse works, and the student body immediately embraces the pair. A kiss in public seals the deal for their status as high school royalty, and they are both declared Hester’s first joint homecoming queens amid a rain of confetti and applause.
It's a stark difference from the storyline of the mid-’90s drama, Cruz noted. "Back then, people were coming out and the storyline wasn't that it was something cool to do. The reality at the time was this was something difficult," said Cruz, whose character on My So-Called Life suffered through a period of homelessness after his parents rejected him.
So if the premise MTV's new show seems pie-in-the-sky idealistic, well, that’s the point.
“It’s something that we want people to look up to and say ... that’s something we can live up to and maybe create one day,” said Volk, whose character, Amy, reveals through lovelorn looks that she may not be faking her affection for her best friend after all.
"We're well aware there aren't people that are so accepting. But that's what I love about ... Hester High School," added Stevens, Volk’s on-screen partner in fake romance. "Hopefully, it will pave the way for high school kids to be more accepting and to be more tolerant."
Though set in a fictional high school in Austin, Texas, described by Faking It executive producer Carter Covington as “this weird little liberal bubble in this sea of red,” the show tries to actualize this idealized world by promoting real-world causes. For example, in an early episode, proceeds from a $50 entrance fee for a homecoming dance benefit the Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention organization for LGBT youth (this fee is waived for same-sex couples). Covington, who is gay, also purposefully set out to cast an openly gay actor, Willett, for the part of Shane, in order to provide a genuine LGBT role model for the show’s audience.
"When you look at how far we've come, that Michael can play this role and be openly gay in press and be willing to be out there and be a role model, it's inspiring to me," Covington said. "Because, growing up, I didn't come out until I was 24, and I don't even remember thinking that there might be an openly gay actor. I just assumed all actors were straight, because they weren't coming out of the closet. And I think that's a huge shift that we're seeing, where actors are able to be themselves and still play a myriad of roles. I think it's very exciting."
Though 20 years may have passed between My So-Called Life and Faking It, some things remain the same. For one: actress Senta Moses. On Life, Moses portrayed Delia Fisher, a high school student who is the first person Cruz’s character confides in about his sexual orientation. In a twist of fate, the actress now plays the liberal-minded Principal Penelope on Faking It, and last night’s panel marked the first time Moses and Cruz had seen each other in two decades.
But there were other ties that bind, which Cruz recognized when he called Willett his figurative “grandchild” onstage.
Though the pop culture references in the stories of LGBT teens may vary with the times, Cruz said, “In the end, it's a universal theme, which is we’re all just trying to figure out who we are, and love ourselves, and love the people in our lives — exactly as they come to us.”
Faking It premieres Tuesday on MTV. Watch the trailer below.