Television, of course, played its usual outsize part. When Vice President Joe Biden said on May 6 that he was “comfortable” with gay marriage, he referenced a TV show — NBC’s Will & Grace (1998-2006), which in its time was regarded as controversial and cutting edge, though not by all its audience.
Groundbreaking to middle America it may have been, but the show rarely if ever was about gay sexuality. Probably its most famous episode, “Acting Out,” did show a kiss between Will and Jack (Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes), outside a Today Show window. But in the episode they were protesting that a gay kiss had been cut from an NBC sitcom episode, not having a moment. Still, it was witty and self-referential, because in real life Will & Grace had been criticized for its lack of a “gay kiss,” too.
And Will & Grace “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far,” as Biden put it.
Just two days after the vice president’s remarks, on May 8, voters in North Carolina, the state where the Democrats will hold their presidential nominating convention later this summer, passed an amendment to the state constitution that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and banned “any other type of ‘domestic legal union’ such as civil unions and domestic partnerships.” The measure passed easily, 61% to 39%. Then, just one day after that, President Barack Obama took to ABC to declare his personal belief in the right of same-sex couples to marry. His presumed opponent in the coming election, former Governor Mitt Romney, quickly went on the record with his opposition to gay marriage.
And with that, the usual orgy of network and cable news nonstop coverage and analysis ratcheted up even higher. For the next few days, even the economy was overshadowed by this flare-up in the cultural wars.
Of course, in an election year, hot-button social issues are prods that galvanize the base — on both sides of the cultural chasm. That’s predictable. Like it or not, what’s on the tube tonight will continue to be something that politicos will weigh in on.
Coincidentally, the same week, a widely noticed New York Times story all but declared that the once-sharp cultural battle over the portrayal and acceptance of gay people on television was over.
But is it?
“What’s missing?” Times staff writer Brian Stelter asked about gay portrayals on current primetime broadcast-network TV.
“The outrage,” he said. “The cultural battlefield of television has changed markedly since the 1990s, when conservative groups and religious figures objected to Ellen DeGeneres coming out and ‘Will & Grace’ coming on.”
Broadcast-network shows like Happy Endings, Modern Family and Smash feature gay characters and gay storylines, Stelter noted, but it’s “rare to hear a complaint.”
In fact, Stelter is right, but only after a fashion, about those specific three shows. Even though the Catholic League, for example, hasn’t attacked them individually for their gay content, the organization’s head, Bill Donohue, recently inveighed against the fact that “homosexual and transgender character(s) — all positively portrayed — are proliferating on TV (by contrast, positively portrayed Catholic characters are almost nonexistent).”
The Parents Television Council, another conservative-social-values pressure group, hasn’t attacked the three shows for their gay characters either, and it’s actually taken a nuanced position regarding their general sexual allusions and language. In its color-coded scheme, the PTC has given ABC’s Happy Endings and NBC’s Smash an overall “red” rating, meaning neither show is recommended for anyone under 18, in the PTC’s opinion, while Modern Family gets a “yellow” — not recommended for anyone under 14.
Meanwhile, this week in Manhattan, the broadcast networks are previewing their new fall schedules, and we will soon learn which new series will arouse the ire of cultural conservatives and fundamentalists going forward.
One that’s sure to get a close look from the likes of the PTC and the Catholic League is The New Normal, a new NBC comedy in which a young single mother from the Midwest moves in with a gay male couple in Beverly Hills.
Says the network about the gay couple: “With successful careers and a committed and loving partnership, the one thing missing is a baby.”
But then, in true sitcom fashion: “Enter Goldie,” a waitress and single mother from the Midwest. “Desperate and broke – but also fertile – Goldie quickly becomes the guys’ surrogate.” Tune in Tuesdays, at 9:30 p.m., to see what happens next.
Smash, starring Debra “Grace” Messing, will be returning to the Peacock Network in the new season, and both Happy Endings and Modern Family will be back in primetime, too. But Downwardly Mobile, the pilot that reunited Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, and was set in a trailer park, didn’t make the cut. Too bad. If it was anything like Roseanne, the groundbreaking late-’80s and early-’90s sitcom, here was a show that would take on social controversies and push the boundaries of so-called good taste.
– 30 –