"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I have an admission to make: Since its series premiere in 2009, I’ve been an apologist for Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam’s (Eric Stonestreet) sexless relationship on “Modern Family.” I’d been forgiving in my eagerness to see a show portray the way a gay couple navigates their extended family in everyday suburban life: their parents and in-laws, their straight siblings and nieces and nephews, the local strip mall. (Plus I am smitten with cuddly bear types like Cam, a Midwestern farm boy as prone to bursting into song or tears as he is catapulting a huge pumpkin down a football field or pounding out a John Bonham-worthy drum solo.)
So I cut executive producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd a huge amount of slack for constructing an irritatingly snipey Ricky-and-Lucy dynamic for paternalistic Mitchell and antic Cam and forgetting to imbue it with anything resembling romance, chalking it up to an evocation of the stress of becoming new parents — after all, straight couples can go through that phase, too. I made excuses for Mitchell and Cam’s discretion (is that what it is?) when it comes to being affectionate toward each other in front of the family, even with Mitchell’s entire straight family’s sexuality constantly on display — his dad, Jay (Ed O’Neill), and younger, bodacious Latin stepmom, Gloria (Sofia Vergara); his sister, Claire (Julie Bowen), and her goofy husband, Phil (Ty Burrell); his teenage nieces (Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter). It’s generational, I argued, and as their peer, I can appreciate that: Many of us who came of age and came out in the 1980s and ’90s have internalized a lesson to compartmentalize our desires and the way we present ourselves. When many of us were first telling our families and friends we’re gay, the most we could hope for was “tolerance” — how many of us had to hear, “I don’t care what you do in the bedroom, just don’t parade it around in front of me”? [Translation: I know you're gay, just don’t show me.] Mitchell’s dad, Jay, is certainly the kind of father who has imparted this message to his son because he feels his masculinity being threatened, even as he strives to be a good dad. We see, nearly every week, how squeamish he still gets around Cam — and hetero, bromantically huggy Phil, for that matter.
But after three and a half seasons, I stopped making excuses, and started getting angry at “Modern Family.” And not just because I learned that it is one of the Romney family’s favorite sitcoms — though that certainly points to my issue with it, which I’ll elaborate on, momentarily. My change of heart was brought about by the premiere of “The New Normal,” Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler’s series, which I was all set to dislike, in part because I bristle at gimmicks, and this is chock-full of them: a gay couple (played by Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) enlists a sweet naif from Ohio, Goldie (Georgia King), to be their surrogate mother, and essentially adopts her and her family, which includes her hyperarticulate, precocious tween daughter, Shania (played by Bebe Wood, whose Little Edie imitation, apropos of nothing on the show and in this conversation, is unparalleled), and Ellen Barkin as Goldie’s Archie Bunker-esque racist, homophobic neocon grandmother, Jane. I’ll admit, too, that I initially found the gay boys a little twee, and a lot narcissistic (oh, who isn’t?), but I was soon won over, not only by the show’s quick wit, of which there is plenty, just as there is on “Modern Family,” but also, and more importantly, by the show’s unabashed gayness, and its courage in taking on real issues and revealing genuine emotion.
The couple, Bryan and David, is younger than Cam and Mitchell, and we see them kissing, touching, cuddling in bed together, living their lives like any couple in love, gay or straight. “Modern Family” had to have a special episode, “The Kiss,” that featured the gay couple kissing, in the background. In the second season. It was an event, responding to criticism that the network was being too shy in showing Cam and Mitchell express any kind of physical affection — which they rationalized by attributing it to Mitchell’s discomfort with PDA (and his character is uptight, but uptight people like love, too). So how do they explain the lack of affection when they’re in their own home, alone? Cam and Mitchell are held together by jazz hands and resentment and bed death and their daughter, Lily, and that’s a sad commentary on gay marriage, isn’t it? What else is there to connect them? We seem to have met them when their relationship was fraying — were they one of those couples who were trying to salvage their marriage by having a kid?
The love and desire between “The New Normal’s” Bryan and David is palpable, and on the series, it’s a nonevent. For all their differences, and there are many — David is a nerdy Jewish OB-GYN, who loves sports; Bryan is a TV producer, a dandy, a shopaholic, a priss, and an über-goy — the two appear deeply connected, even when they’re standing halfway across the room from each other. But all of this, cynical parents might argue, could be chalked up to the fact that they’re not yet tired, beleaguered, exasperated parents. OK, fair enough. I’m looking forward to the new parent episodes — though these two rich boys will undoubtedly have a fleet of night nurses helping them out (yes, these boys have a lot more money than the “ModFam” boys do, though Mitch and Cam have nearby family on whom they rely, so no one is really crying for an extra set of hands there).
Still, there is a bigger issue, and it came to light in “Baby Clothes,” the third episode of “The New Normal,” which revealed the most important distinction between these two shows: how they portray gays dealing with adversity in the straight world. The setup: Bryan and David are in an outlet store with Goldie. As they get verklempt, looking at all the tiny baby apparel, the two men start canoodling until they are confronted by a homophobe shopping with his family, who tells them to stop because he’s “trying to protect [his] family.” He tells them that they’re “disgusting.” David wants to let it go, but Bryan braves a confrontation: “Thanks for your intolerance and your bigotry and for fostering this ignorance in another generation.” Is it a Norma Rae moment? Most definitely. Except that he doesn’t feel triumphant afterward. He is overwhelmed with terror, on the verge of tears, and is visibly shaken up throughout the rest of the episode. He later confesses he’s scared not for him or for David, but because he is out of his little cocoon, realizing for the first time that he may not be able to defend their future child from “a world where idiot people are trained to hate what we do.” As a lesbian parent who gets looks when I visit places outside my sweet little cosmopolitan gay-friendly bubble, I can tell you, this moment really kicked me in the gut: It’s absolutely true. We may have taught ourselves to gird our loins, and come back with witty retorts, block out the pain, but how do we explain hate to our children and steel their nerves and make them feel confident about their families?
“Modern Family” has Mitchell and Cam grappling with homophobia almost exclusively in confrontations with Neanderthal-like Jay, but it’s played for laughs because neither of them take Mitch’s dad seriously, and neither do we, in part because Jay is a good guy deep inside. We know him, we love him, he’s ignorant but trying to evolve. We never see the couple appear genuinely threatened. Has Cam ever cried in a non-hammy, boo-hooey way? The couple is always going for the funny, but we need more from them. Bryan and David are going for the funny, too, but they can also switch gears and get serious.
Call executive producer Ryan Murphy ham-fisted if you must, but these times demand it. Because, for all the progress network TV has made in including major gay characters — and really, we’ve primarily encountered only white gay upper-middle-class men on TV, very few trans people or lesbians, and forget LGBT of color — rarely do we see LGBT characters on sitcoms leading their lives in the real world, contending with the issues we all face, which, sadly, still includes a whole lot of hate. The brutal reality is only 21 states protect LGBT people from job discrimination, only 21 states allow a gay couple to jointly adopt a child. Eleven states have yet to repeal their sodomy laws (though they are unenforceable because of the Supreme Court ruling on Lawrence v. Texas). This country has made some progress on the same-sex marriage front, with nine states and D.C. legalizing same-sex marriage, but DOMA remains in effect — and SCOTUS announced on Dec. 3 that it has once again delayed hearing one of the cases. And gay teens, research shows, are four times more likely than their straight counterparts to attempt suicide in this country. I welcome Murphy’s heavy hand: TV is one of the best mediums to reach the masses.
After Season 3 of “Modern Family,” Frank Bruni came to the show’s defense in the Times, just as I had once done. “A decade ago,” he writes, “[gays] would have balked — and balked loudly — at how frequently Cameron in particular tips into limp-wristed, high-voiced caricature … ’Modern Family’ endows us with a sort of comic banality. It’s an odd kind of progress. But it’s progress nonetheless.” But so much of how Cam and Mitchell are portrayed strikes me as gay minstrelsy. There are still plenty of people here who hate gays — Supreme Court Justice Scalia for one, all too many legislators, and so many of our neighbors and relatives and colleagues and other everyday people who vote and confront us in stores, on the street, in our schools — who think we’re disgusting, who begrudge us the right to have children or get married in any way, who believe it threatens their own happiness. What we don’t see represented enough on TV is how adult gays respond, how it still shakes us up, how we fear becoming parents and protecting our children. Seeing that represented on TV is progress. And that is the kind of show the Romneys should be watching.
Kera Bolonik is a contributing writer at Salon. Follow her on Twitter @KeraBolonikMore Kera Bolonik.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)