Eastsiders — the Netflix series about queer couples navigating life and love around the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles — has come to a close with its fourth and final season. Along the way, the characters have encountered numerous obstacles, among them a hot thieving conman, a hard-drinking mother, a predatory publisher, STI scares, and infidelities.
However, the production, which began as a YouTube show in 2012 and aired on Logo TV before finding a home with the streaming giant, has run into stigma in the real world, as well.
Kit Williamson, the creator of Eastsiders who also stars as Cal, recounted how in the third season, when his character goes on a road trip with his partner Thom (Van Hansis), he had to create a fake name for the production, Go West. He had to do so since many potential shooting locations did not want to host a gay series, and "Eastsiders" was easily Google-able as being just that.
Even in the supposed blue bubble of Los Angeles, Eastsiders found hostility. In one scene of the new season, Jeremy (Matthew McKelligon) shares a chaste kiss with his partner Derrick (Leith M. Burke) on a bench in Echo Park. During shooting, a park ranger threatened to shut down the production over "simulating sex," even as, just feet away, a straight couple copulated in a sleeping bag.
These experiences have opened Williamson's eyes to the ongoing challenges facing LGBTQ people in media as well as the real world.
"Making something so unapologetically queer has exposed me personally to the reality that not everyone is comfortable with unapologetically queer stories," Williamson told The Advocate in an interview reflecting on the legacy of the series.
Bias reared its head again in an unexpected way with the release of season 4 on Netflix. In one pre-sex exchange between Thom and his publisher Clifford (Jake Choi), a line in which a character said he's been recently tested was translated for French-speaking audiences on the streaming platform as "I'm clean." Twitter users, including Amnesty France, were quick to point out the "serophobic" translation, leading to a speedy correction from Netflix.
However, for Williamson, who worked closely with the Los Angeles LGBT Center to fight against stigma in Eastsiders — several characters are undetectable — the incident was a reminder of the work that still needs to be done in the conversation around HIV.
"It was an opportunity to talk about why that language is hurtful and to raise awareness of why we need to remove language like 'I'm clean' from our vocabulary," Williamson said. "I think it was ubiquitous language as recently as five years ago. And our understanding of language and the power it has to hurt people is evolving so quickly."
Sex — and the stigma around it — has been an issue that has followed Eastsiders from the onset. There is a perception, even in the gay community, that the series is simply an orgiastic showcase of sex scenes, which could not be further from reality.
"It's crazy," Williamson said of this perception. "There's almost no sex in the show. I think it's pearl-clutching. I think it's respectability politics and I think it's people being unaware of their own biases and the stigma that they themselves are placing on queer stories."
While sex does occur in Eastsiders, the drama is plot-driven. Characters experience the challenges of relationships in the 21st century — sometimes, processed in bedside conversations — on topics including monogamy, polyamory, marriage, STIs, gender, bisexuality, finances, adoption, and careers.
And whereas most queer series center on single protagonists and most mainstream series have neutered queer couples, Eastsiders is unique in showing couples navigating life and sex together over the long term. Thus, the drama is not about finding Mr. Right, but what it means to stay with Mr. Right even when things get complicated.
"In mainstream storytelling, the second that two queer people partner up, they disappear or they move to the suburbs to have 2.5 kids and a white picket fence and no conflict exists in their lives," Williamson said. "I understand the impulse, especially in more mainstream fare, to protect those characters from a conflict. But if you protect characters from conflict, you're removing them from the story. They become set dressing."
Williamson himself is no stranger to the conflicts that can occur in a long-term relationship. He and his partner, John Halbach, who portrays the character of Ian on Eastsiders, have been together as a couple for over 13 years; they've been married for three. As a result, he brought an authentic perspective on the challenges facing couples to his production.
"I like to think that I have some perspective and insight on making a long-term relationship work and the sacrifice that goes into that, the joy that you get from that," Williamson said. "My relationship is something that I'm incredibly proud of, because it's not as though you snap your fingers and a relationship works. You have to work at it."
While a lot of these statements may sound like clichés, Williamson asserted that, in the case of coupledom, a lot of the clichés are true. "It takes two people to be in a relationship and you have to make decisions collectively. And for a lot of people that's really hard," he said.
Different-sex couples also do not get a free pass on Eastsiders. Ian and Kathy (Constance Wu, who sadly due to scheduling conflicts did not return for the final season) had their share of drama, while Cal's parents (his mother is played by the iconic Traci Lords) arrive this season for a booze-fueled lunch from hell to show just how messy heterosexual relationships can be.
"We have nothing on straight people in terms of drama. I think that straight people have been blowing up their relationships in spectacular ways for all of history," Williamson said. "The one big advantage that [queer people] have is ... we have no choice but to take the red pill in the Matrix early on in life and realize that not everything that you're told about your life is true and that the path laid out for you may not be the right one."
In this vein, the final season of Eastsiders revolves around marriage, and what that institution means for queer couples. The planning of the wedding between Quincy (Stephen Guarino) and Douglas (Drag Race's Willam) spans the length of the season, centering on the conflict within the couple as the gender-nonconforming Douglas wants to wear a dress to the nuptials while Quincy is against it. Meanwhile, the question of engagement (and monogamy) hovers around Cal and Thom, while Jeremy and Derrick fast-track their own relationship toward becoming foster parents.
The focus on marriage is not to push any kind of agenda of a "heteronormative role," said Williamson, but rather to show the different roads queer couples can take. "The show's essential thesis is that there's no one path that works for everybody and you have to forge your own path," Williamson said. These characters are tasked with "deciding exactly what they want out of their relationships and exactly what commitment means to them, from a monogamous relationship to an open relationship. Everybody has to chart their own course."
Marriage holds a special place in the heart of Williamson, who was surprised by the impact his own nuptials had on his life and his relationship with Halbach. "When we started, it felt like, 'Oh, we're just planning a party.' But then, bringing our families together, sharing in that experience of affirming our love, and committing to one another in front of the people who mattered the most to us in the world? That's something I'll carry with me for the rest of my life."
And what does Williamson hope is the long-term legacy of Eastsiders? "I hope that this show inspires other independent filmmakers to create micro-budget content to tell stories that are unique to them and to get them out there," he said. "I think the show is proof that there is an audience for these stories, and that you don't have to have a giant budget in order to reach a global audience."
"You don't have to follow the rules of the industry. If we keep following the rules of the industry, we're gonna just get a queer show every couple of years. We need more stories than that," he concluded. "We need to be represented as a community in ways that honor our individuality ... and support each other and fight for each other."
The final season of Eastsiders is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.