In what some have called TV’s “Second Golden Age,” both cable and network TV have seen a boom in innovation and diversity. But it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that some of us get short shrift in this surge of artistic riches.
Last week’s news that the Ellen DeGeneres–produced sitcom One Big Happy had been removed from NBC’s comedy lineup after only six episodes left network TV’s gay-centric slot yet again unfilled. This comes after a string of unsuccessful attempts, all by NBC, to fill that creative representational gap, after the cancellation of Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal in 2013 and the Sean Hayes vehicle Sean Saves the World in 2014. Now that we’re 0 for 3 in recent attempts at gay network sitcoms, a burning question remains: What’s the problem, network TV?
While LGBT-centric content has crept into the programming of cable and Web-based platforms (most notably with HBO’s recently canceled Looking, Amazon’s Transparent, and Netflix’s double-header Orange Is the New Black and the just-inaugurated Grace and Frankie), network TV has been decidedly more bashful about placing LGBT issues front and center in their programming.
Of course, network TV occasionally features excellent queer supporting characters—The Good Wife’s enigmatic and alluring Kalinda (who recently ended her tenure on the CBS drama), Happy Endings’ lovable slacker Max (although the ABC comedy was canceled after three seasons), Modern Family’s delightfully conventional Cam and Mitchell, Empire’s impossibly dreamy Jamal, and any number of examples from Shonda Rhimes’s universe. But generally speaking, despite the popularity of these characters, they’re typically secondary, sidelined in service of storylines for their straight counterparts. In fact, there hasn’t been a long-running sitcom or drama with a central queer character on network television since the end of Will & Grace’s run in 2006.
Part of the problem is that only one of the four major networks has even attempted to change this status quo, aside from CBS's 2012 sitcom Partners, which was also canceled after a mere six episodes had aired. NBC saw major success with Will & Grace, both critically and commercially, so on one hand it makes sense it would be the network to most prominently make subsequent attempts at LGBT-centric content. But on the other hand, it’s still a bit baffling that NBC would be the only network to make those attempts — and that it waited seven years, between 2006 and 2013, to do so.
Another problem, of course, is that each of those attempts has been a ratings failure. This could be due to a number of reasons — poor scheduling, misguided production, bad writing — but it’s hard to believe that it’s simply because American audiences aren’t ready for a certain kind of diversity in their living rooms.
Yet that’s sort of what network execs seem to think. After The New Normal’s cancellation, NBC’s president of entertainment, Jennifer Salke, speculated that it wasn’t the gay content of the show but instead its “tone” that led to its demise: “Ryan Murphy likes to … push through an idea in every episode and something that he’s grappling with or he thinks people should be thinking about. It’s more issue-oriented that way, and maybe that’s something that didn’t help it.”
In other words, gay-themed shows can’t focus on gay issues if they want to be successful.
NBC’s reaction to that conundrum was what entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt alluded to in the same interview: “brightly lit situation comed[ies],” featuring protagonists who are “single, so maybe it will feel more universal to people who … aren’t gay or have people in their life who are in gay relationships.”
These “brightly lit” comedies took the form of Sean Saves the World in 2013-14 and One Big Happy in 2015. Both shows — multicamera, laugh-track-laden throwbacks to sitcoms like Will & Grace and Ellen — fared even worse than The New Normal, plagued by broad humor and broader “play to the back row” performances. NBC’s attempts to make gay-themed content more approachable and relatable resulted in wooden comedies with yuk-yuk jokes like, “People can tell you’re gay faster than they can tell I’m black,” or “I’m not ‘doing it’ with him, ’cause that wouldn’t make me a very good lesbian!”
The puzzling badness of these shows is likely not due to the incredible talent involved — Sean Hayes, Linda Lavin, and Megan Hilty all in one place at the same time!? — but instead due to production constraints that attempt to make the shows more palatable for “mainstream” audiences, which translated to conventional plots and clichéd characters.
What The New Normal lacked in widespread appeal, it more than made up for in cleverness (major episode plots often required knowledge of gay references, ranging from Grey Gardens to Cher’s “Half-Breed”). It’s interesting also to note that in all three of NBC’s attempts at gay-centric content since Will & Grace, the main characters are gay people trying to become parents or become better ones. Evidently these are the stories that network execs deem acceptable as vehicles for gay visibility in the contemporary climate. Nevertheless, despite minor tweaks to convention and formula, none of these attempts gained significant traction, and as now, we’re left with that all-too-familiar queer gap in the prime-time network lineup.
That said, it’s insanely unfair to hold those few shows to any higher standards or scrutiny than any other run-of-the-mill sitcom, but with limited outlets of visibility, LGBT audiences are given little choice. NBC needs to stop trading originality for palatability in its gay shows, and the rest of the networks need to follow suit. With unprecedented shifts in public opinion on LGBT people, there’s no excuse for relying on one non-straight show per season within all four major networks.
Comedian Fortune Feimster’s upcoming Tina Fey–produced comedy might provide the breath of fresh air we’ve been waiting for — but in such a vast sea of creativity on TV today, is it fair that it’s our only hope?