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Gay characters on network TV get mixed reviews (15951)

15951Entertainment News2005-05-07

Gay characters on network TV get mixed reviews

Josh Schwartz thought a kiss was just a kiss. When the creator-executive producer of Fox's hit melodrama The O.C. wanted his lead female character (played by Mischa Barton) to sexually experiment with a lesbian, Schwartz didn't anticipate any flack. "I was wrong," he says. "I overestimated how evolved we've gotten. There was tremendous pressure [from the network] for us to not do the story line."

"It's a sensitive time," adds Schwartz, who insists that corporate anxiety still exists when it comes to the subject of same-sex stories on network television. But if executives are more cautious at a time in which the medium is being heavily scrutinized by conservatives, they're not sending gay characters back into the closet any time soon. In addition to The O.C., gay story lines are prominently featured on such mainstream series as ABC's Desperate Housewives and Eyes, NBC's Will & Grace and ER, UPN's Kevin Hill and Half & Half, and the WB Network's One Tree Hill. "The current situation permits the relative frequency of gay characters without it being a scandal, fight, or even big deal. That's progress. It's normalization. It's become more taken for granted," says Larry Gross, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

Still, many argue that gays continue to be underrepresented on network television. "If we're 10% of the population, are 10% of the TV characters gay? The answer is no, not even close," says Paul Colichman, CEO of the gay- and lesbian-targeted network Here TV. Cable television, however, is generally more inclusive. "Cable has to speak to that diversity," says Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime Networks. "It's almost a mandate. We are by definition the alternative." Ilene Chaiken, creator-executive producer of Showtime's lesbian-themed drama The L Word, says the network puts its programming where its mouth is. "There was some discussion [early on] about, 'Can we keep this accessible to a straight audience?' But I never felt that I was being asked to compromise or be dishonest about the stories I was telling," she says. Even so, Greenblatt adds, "You face restrictions at every turn. You don't want to turn people off."

Not that gay audiences will have to wait for mainstream television to come around. The subscription-based Here is now available in 40 million homes, and Viacom's Logo, which premieres June 30, will be available in 10 million homes. And there's still hope that network television will eventually become more inclusive. As it courts the desirable 18- to 34-year-old audience, incorporating gay characters into TV series could become a creative mandate. "For the young demographic, the presence of gay people is a necessary component of realism--unlike their parents or grandparents for whom the condition of ignoring or denying the presence of gay people was a standard way of life," Gross says.

ABC, for example, is currently developing four shows with central gay characters; the network's new crime drama Eyes features the character Chris Didion (Rick Worthy), a gay black male who has strong moral convictions and is masculine and comfortable with his sexuality. "With seven major characters, the idea that a few of them might not be of color and one or two might not be heterosexual would be ridiculous," Eyes creator-executive producer John McNamara says. When he wrote the Didion character, McNamara says, "ABC didn't blink. It wasn't an issue."

Kevin Murphy, coexecutive producer of Housewives, says ABC didn't flinch when a recent episode showed a teenager skinny-dipping with and kissing another boy. "[ABC] liked it, actually. The only issue they had was that we made it clear they weren't having sex in the water," says Murphy, who adds, "I give America credit. That episode came and went. Cracks didn't split open in the Earth, and Hollywood wasn't swallowed into the bowels."

Queer (but not yet here)--broadcast shows in development that feature gay characters:
Book of Daniel (NBC, drama): An Episcopal priest (Aidan Quinn) with a prescription-drug problem and a gay son (Christian Campbell) talks to Jesus while struggling with family problems.
Crumbs (ABC, comedy): Two estranged brothers, one gay and one straight, are forced to take over the family business when their parents divorce.
Don't Ask (Fox, comedy): A married father (Alan Ruck) with two teenage sons announces he's gay and in love with his wife's (Kristen Johnston) therapist.
Love Life (ABC, comedy): A Friends-like comedy set in Philadelphia about the lives and loves of a group of single 30-somethings, one of whom is a "feminine lesbian."
Melissa Etheridge project (ABC, comedy): Etheridge plays a music teacher in this reversal of the Will & Grace formula.
Untitled Mutchnick/Kohan project (The WB Network, comedy): Fraternal twin sisters, played by Sara Gilbert and Molly Stanton, have nothing in common. Christopher Fitzgerald plays their flamboyantly gay coworker. The show is from Will & Grace creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. (Phillip Zonkel, via Reuters)

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