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From Hollywoodreporter.com

Gay themes in television (wonderfalls mention)

Monday 29 March 2004, by Webmaster

With Brian Fuller : co-creator/executive producer, "Wonderfalls"; creator, Showtime’s "Dead Like Me"

Gay themes in television

The medium always has been at the forefront of social change — and it’s no different with regard to the gay and lesbian movement

During the past year, television sets nationwide have been inundated with images of gays and lesbians unlike any before. Gay-themed shows such as NBC’s "Will & Grace" and Showtime’s "Queer as Folk" are thriving, and other series such as NBC’s "ER," MTV’s "The Real World" and HBO’s "Sex and the City" have incorporated gay characters for years.

But something enormous changed in mid-2003: As sodomy laws were overturned, Canada approved gay marriage and the Episcopal church appointed its first gay bishop, the creative side of gay TV received a shot of adrenaline. Bravo’s "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Boy Meets Boy," Showtime’s "The L Word" and "A Soldier’s Girl," ABC’s "It’s All Relative," HBO’s "Angels in America," Fox’s "Wonderfalls" and "Playing It Straight" and the syndicated "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" are among the new programs that have turned the small screen a shade more pink.

To discuss that change in programming, the social ramifications of such a strong gay presence and what it means for the entertainment industry, Jeffrey Epstein for The Hollywood Reporter recently asked a few of television’s most influential players — who happen to be openly gay — to sit down for breakfast and hash it out over danish and coffee.

The Hollywood Reporter: What has surprised you most during the past year? Robert Greenblatt: I don’t think I would have predicted that "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" would premiere and make it into the public consciousness with no hurdles (and) no backlash. It’s just there, and everybody’s embraced it. Craig Zadan: Not only have people embraced it, but people are fighting to buy advertising on that show. But in contrast, the opposite is true of "Boy Meets Boy": They attempted to get "Boy Meets Boy 2" off the ground, and they didn’t because no one wants to advertise on it. Brian Graden: I think it’s OK to "laugh at." People are laughing at "Will"; they’re laughing at the "Queer Eye" guys. When you go to that dramatic or real place, it gets tougher. Greenblatt: I have ambivalent feelings about "Queer Eye" because I think they’re one stereotype after another, and it’s all surface and comedic. On the other hand, you have to have those things that precede the heavier, more complex kinds of shows. Zadan: We have a series, "It’s All Relative." It started with Lloyd Braun, the chairman of ABC, coming to us and saying, "I want to do a sitcom with two gay dads." We weren’t even trying to sell the network on the show — he came to us. But in terms of drama, the only dramas you can get on television that involve gay characters are on cable. Bryan Fuller: On "Wonderfalls," we have a lesbian character. We explore her relationship, but we were told explicitly by (the network’s) Standards and Practices (department) that we cannot show them kiss — even though on other shows like (Fox’s) "The O.C.," they’ve had women kissing. The big difference seems to be that for that, it’s the shock effect; on our show, it’s romance and a woman who wants to be in a relationship. Zadan: On our show, the two guys kiss all the time. Greenblatt: But do they kiss romantically or (exchange) pecks? Zadan: When they go to work, they kiss each other on the lips and go to work. They’re not passionate kisses; it’s like kissing someone goodbye. Graden: On (MTV’s) "Undressed," gay storylines were integrated for five (or) six years, with kissing, etc., always allowed. Whatever the standard was for straight people, we have the same for gay. Paris Barclay: The downside is that "Queer Eye" can be used to argue that a dramatic show with gay people should not be used for broadcast. The success of it, people will say, hinges on the fact that (a) The characters are light and fluffy and nonthreatening, (and) (b) You don’t see their sex lives.

THR: While people have heralded "Queer Eye" for ushering in the new gay-programming craze, most new gay-inclusive shows had to have been in the works long before the Fab Five hit the air. What happened a year or so ago behind the scenes, where everyone decided to develop these types of shows? Zadan: I think the culmination of the enormity of the advertising dollars for "Will & Grace." When "Will & Grace" became a bona fide smash hit, raking in zillions of dollars, every network said: "I want to make money, too. I want my ’Will & Grace.’"

THR: Is television the ultimate tool for social change? Barclay: I don’t think there is anything more powerful. Theater doesn’t reach as many people; films, even, don’t reach as many people. When 20 million people see Laura Innes’ character, a lesbian, on "ER," that has an impact. My mother calls up, and she’s very concerned about Laura and her girlfriend — she wants to know what’s going on. Those kind of things are the connections television makes. Fuller: It’s lowering people’s resistance to an idea: You make them comfortable with likable gay characters in their living room — so they’re not offensive and they don’t make out on primetime — and little by little, you get leeway.

THR: The gay characters on "Real World" were monumental for young people, giving them young gay characters who were role models. Jonathan Murray: The nice thing about "The Real World" is that when we first presented it to MTV, the idea was (to gather) seven diverse people — so in essence, it forced us to have gay people. What’s great about MTV, as Brian mentioned with "Undressed," is that there’s no double standard: The way we treat gay and lesbian storylines is the same way we treat straight storylines. The nice thing about reality programming is that it takes you places you can’t imagine you would go: Pedro and Sean (1994’s "The Real World: San Francisco") decided they wanted to have a commitment ceremony, so it went there. Greenblatt: You could never have done that if you were on ABC. Murray: Right. And I’m still amazed with Richard Hatch on the first season of (CBS’) "Survivor" (in 2000): Who would have written a gay Machiavellian character like that who was going to take the money home? Fuller: There’s one less barrier to go through because people are perceiving it as real. Graden: I think part of the reason we’re here is because this is the first generation of producers, like Bryan (Fuller) or Kevin Williamson, who saw themselves reflected back to them in any consistent way. So when you reach the age when you express yourself, you don’t have any shame. Murray: Especially when you’re a gay kid. Graden: With Chip and Reichen (the gay couple who won CBS’ "The Amazing Race 4" last year), it was the first time I think you actually saw a real gay relationship. Murray: And their chiron was "Married"; I thought it was really interesting that CBS let them do that. Zadan: Yet look at the upset when Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman kissed (last year on CBS) when they won the (best score) Tony Award for "Hairspray": There was outrage. Ilene Chaiken: That feels like it was so long ago. It was before the really seismic shift that we’re in the midst of right now. Zadan: What we need to talk about is the gigantic change that’s happened in the last couple weeks after the Super Bowl (played Feb. 1) — it weighs in on this issue. Right after the Super Bowl, every Standards and Practices department at every broadcast network has been under strict orders to relook at every line of dialogue and every motion that goes on. We were about to tape an episode of "It’s All Relative": The week before, the script had gone through Standards and Practices and was approved; a week later, after the Super Bowl, they recalled the script and started taking lines out. That’s terrifying. Graden: Pop culture, I think, leads the national dialogue — which is great. But there are those rare historical blips where some political wind actually can lead culture, and I think we’re entering one of those potential moments. One of the things that worries me most post-Super Bowl (is) not so much the individual lines that are being censored but the things that won’t even get made in the first place. What’s happening because of an eighth of a second of video that was an accident is just stunning. Zadan: There has also been a regression in dramatic films over the years. When we did (the 1995 telefilm) "Serving in Silence" on NBC, nobody wanted to advertise — and NBC said, "We don’t care," and they broadcast it anyway. But today, you can’t make a drama on ABC, NBC (or) CBS with a story about a gay character in a TV movie — they won’t buy them.

THR: Will there be backlash to all of the good media gays have received recently? Barclay: I think we’re already seeing the backlash; I think people are getting crankier and crankier, about gay marriage in particular. It’s a time when we as artists have to be very smart about it; I think we can help or we can hinder the process. Greenblatt: I think the key there is subtlety. Murray: No one likes to be preached to. With "The Real World," it’s always an entertainment show first because if our audience thinks you’re preaching at them, they’ll shut you off — it’s like their parents talking to them. Chaiken: I think even the people who are railing and flailing against this the hardest know on some level that (gay marriage) is going to happen. They might win in the short term — we might really get hurt in this presidential election over this issue — but in the long term, we’ll win. And they know it.

THR: Is the time right for a gay television channel? Greenblatt: It’s been the right time for years. Graden: Even three years ago, I would have conceived a gay channel as being gay characters and gay shows for gay people; now, I think (that) post-"Queer Eye," gay is more sensibility than it is specifically gay people and gay shows. It’s like urban-culture youth: Urban culture has been co-opted by everyone; that’s what’s marketed to white kids and everyone else. If we do a gay channel now, it has to be redefined to appeal to a very broad group. It’s about a sensibility and an idea and a voice in culture, as opposed to just a literal gay channel. Greenblatt: The gay audience has enormous purchasing power. For that reason alone, the time is right for a gay channel. Zadan: What’s fun is when you’re in Canada and you’re working, they have PrideVision; I put PrideVision on and leave it on in the background. They rerun every single, solitary gay show that’s ever been on and every gay movie that’s ever been on — plus, they have a whole lot of original gay programming. It’s not great by any means — it’s done on a low scale with very little money — but it’s fun to watch.

THR: Are gays the "flavor of the moment," or are they making inroads into something more inclusive? Zadan: I found it interesting that Entertainment Weekly was about to do a big ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl") cover with Johnny Depp, (but) at the last minute, they bumped it and put the guys of "Queer Eye" on the cover. The Johnny Depp cover ran weeks later. When (before) would Johnny Depp be bumped off the cover of Entertainment Weekly for "Queer Eye"? Graden: It’s tempting to look at TV and become complacent because there are so many gay characters, and everything seems to be gay right now. But we did some focus groups a couple weeks ago on the subject of violence against gays, and the statistics are just stunning. We sometimes forget that we live in a different world and that TV may be ahead. Greenblatt: We’re developing a series with Paris that I can’t imagine any broadcast network going anywhere near: all about a hate crimes unit. I think people are going to be stunned at how prevalent that is, even though it doesn’t get on the front page. Barclay: One of the things that I have to bring up is that this has been the season of disenfranchisement for black people in terms of gay television; there are a lot of gay black people, and it’s really hard to find yourself on network television. I guess the networks feel: "It’s enough to be gay. Do you have to be black, too?" Fuller: That is an issue for all nonwhite gay men: Gay culture doesn’t go to blacks or Asians or Latinos.

THR: Has any of you noticed that cable news channels are becoming more conservative? Zadan: We’ve just been through the worst experience with "The Reagans": The issue (the news channels) latched onto initially was the AIDS thing. When (the Human Rights Campaign) announced that Barbra Streisand, Neil (Meron, Zadan’s partner at Storyline) and I were being honored this year, they took that and said — on Fox News (Channel) — that Barbra was behind "The Reagans," (that) she financed it (and) cast her husband (James Brolin) in the lead. (In fact), Barbra had nothing to do with the movie — she hadn’t even read the script. Yet we’re watching Fox News telling everybody Barbra Streisand was out to get Ronald Reagan. It was picked up on MSNBC and a little bit on CNN and all these talk shows. It was all a lie, but once it started there, I couldn’t go to a Web site without reading about it. Murray: And you have no recourse because they feel no need to correct themselves. Greenblatt: They know it’s a lie, but it’s a great story to tell, and they knew people would believe it. Graden: What worries me, having flipped obsessively through those channels during the last 10 days and seeing gay marriage everywhere, is that they’re entertainment channels — they are trying to get ratings. This "gay issue" will make better television for them than a long-winded piece about education, so I can see this remaining front and center.

THR: Can something be done to combat that in a creative way? Greenblatt: It’s being done; we just have to keep pushing in a really smart way so it doesn’t feel like we’re trying to be political. It has to just sneak up, and I think that’s happening. Murray: And there are organizations like GLAAD that watch very closely what the media is saying and points out every time they are false about something. Barclay: I think there’s one thing we can do, which is to galvanize our straight allies to understand what the issue is. Straight people find it easier to hear about gay marriage from straight people. That’s why (San Francisco Mayor) Gavin Newsom is getting so much play; that’s why the mayor of New Paltz (N.Y.) is getting so much play: They’re straight guys; they’re "regular guys." So I’ve been taking it on myself to make the people I know aware that it’s the same as Rosa Parks, it’s the same as interracial marriage, it’s the same as all these things that have been pushed by activist judges before the people were ready. The people are always behind the times in what is right. Murray: But it’s also the way we live our lives, the fact that we can all be in this room as openly gay people and be in The Hollywood Reporter; go back 10 years ago, (and) I’m not sure that would have been the case. My partner and I have a son, and we’re dealing with the same issues as our son’s friend’s straight parents at school — they see these two gay dads involved with the school carnival and everything else. So I think you make change any way you can, whether it’s personal or through your job. Graden: Generationally, gay marriage is a really interesting thing: About 2/3 of (MTV’s) audience opposes a change in the constitution to ban gay marriage — in the category of "strongly agree" — (and) more than half think that gay marriage should be allowed, which is a pretty staggering number. In this election, this audience is more mobilized than they were four years ago: Our tracking shows probably 1/3 higher are intending to vote.

THR: Can we look forward to a day when some gay leading actors come out? Barclay: It’s not going to happen. Fuller: When you have a gay actor who wants to be perceived as straight, if you come out, (then) it’s one more barrier for people to perceive you in a role. It’s unfortunate, but having worked with gay actors who are in the closet, they are not coming out anytime soon. Barclay: It’s so ingrained now that I can think of two actors who have played gay characters to help prove that they were straight. Zadan: On the other hand, we cast two gay actors who play gay dads on "It’s All Relative." Not only has the reaction been great, but ("Relative" star) Christopher Sieber has received an unending amount of work: During his hiatus, he’s running from one job to the next. Chaiken: It’s not going to happen until it happens, and the first couple of people who do it will be casualties. Barclay: That’s why no one wants to do it: They don’t want to be left on the dungheap of history as the first one out there and really being shot at. Zadan: You asked earlier if TV is the most important thing to change minds. The only time when we had direct feedback was when we did "Serving in Silence" (which centers on Margarethe Cammermeyer’s discharge from the Army after coming out). Right after it aired, Greta Cammermeyer went on a national speaking tour in every (major) city in the country. She called us from Oklahoma in tears; she said that a teenage boy came up to her and said: "I just realized I’m gay. I had planned to commit suicide and I realized I didn’t have to." Fuller: That’s a good point with "Queer as Folk": As much as I don’t identify with the show, it is getting a message out to young audiences that there is a community that you can seek and find comfort in. Greenblatt: These shows have changed a lot of people’s lives, seeing those images and knowing there are other people out there. Zadan: If the statistics are true about the enormity of gay teen suicides, (then) MTV is reaching that audience directly. If that one kid decided not to kill himself because of something he saw on TV that said it’s OK, then the stuff we’re doing is really worthwhile.

Published March 26, 2004