"Will & Grace" changed nothing

The show is credited for giving us "Modern Family," "Glee," even same-sex marriage. But has gay TV truly evolved?

Published October 3, 2012 12:10AM (EDT)

Sean Hayes and Michael Urie
Sean Hayes and Michael Urie

The strange thing about all the “progress” we’re always hearing about when it comes to gay and lesbian characters on TV? Nothing ever seems to change.

Take the latest dubious example, the new CBS sitcom “Partners,” which premiered last week to deservedly tepid ratings and mostly negative reviews. The giveaway is right there in the tag line: “From the Emmy-winning creators of ‘Will & Grace.’” The series follows gay Louis (Michael Urie) and straight Joe (David Krumholtz), lifelong buds and business partners, whose platonic intimacy is forever getting in the way of their romantic relationships. It’s “Will & Grace” with a gender reassignment — an attempt by creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick to explore what it might mean, in our post-metrosexual era, for two men to find emotional sustenance from a person of the opposite sexual orientation.

Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, “Partners” is little more than mud in the eye of any viewer searching out more complex representations of gay people on television. Louis (Michael Urie) is a walking (or, perhaps more accurately, swishing) compendium of queer clichés: He likes Broadway musicals, interior decorating and gesticulating wildly as he tosses off his arch zingers. (Think Sean Hayes’ Jack from “Will and Grace,” except more shrill.) Joe, meanwhile, is the straight man in every sense of the term, the straitlaced, put-upon hero perpetually exasperated by his friend’s zany antics. Though the show has supporting characters — Brandon Routh as Louis’ boyfriend, Sophia Bush as Joe’s fiancée — Louis’s behavior is so divalike and demanding of attention that you barely even notice anyone else on the screen. Why reinforce merely one or two crude stereotypes when you can reinforce dozens?

The temptation with a show this evidently inept is to brush it aside as another sitcom with little hope of making it to mid-season — this year’s “Work It” or “How to Be a Gentleman.” But arriving six years after its antecedent “Will & Grace” finished its run — and following more than a decade of gay-themed efforts that put forth a shockingly puny and narrow vision of modern gay American life — “Partners” calls into question one of the firmest-held bits of conventional wisdom in television history: Has “Will & Grace,” the landmark show that gay men have long been told to exalt above all others, ultimately done more harm than good? Was it social progress that Kohan and Mutchnick’s creation engendered, or did they develop a built-in set of limitations on how homosexuality might be represented on TV?

Premiering in fall 1998, a couple of years after writer Andrew Sullivan famously declared the plague of AIDS to be over, “Will & Grace” was greeted with mostly respectful reviews that praised its comedy, but cast a few alarms (“Homosexuality as one big gimmicky thing,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker). Gay lawyer Will (Eric McCormack) and his irrepressible pal Jack (Sean Hayes) were not the suffering souls of television movies like “An Early Frost” (1985) or the closet cases from nighttime like “Dynasty,” whose homosexuality was employed as just another shocking cliffhanger twist. Their tart-tongued female friends, Grace (Debra Messing) and Karen (Megan Mullally), didn’t pity or condescend to them, the way, say, Claire Danes’ Angela Chase so often seemed to do to Wilson Cruz’s Rickie Vasquez on “My So-Called Life.”

Instead “Will & Grace” boldly insisted that gayness need not be understood in terms of tragedy or scandal or suicidal misery; it put the gay back in gay. The male characters were handsome and healthy, urbane and witty – certainly nothing that might make straight America squeamish. The series’ commercial success (for four of its eight seasons, it was among the top 20 ranked shows in the country) seemed to parallel a larger mainstream acceptance of homosexuality. Many have since argued that it in fact effected that acceptance. In an interview on “Meet the Press” earlier this year, during a discussion of evolving opinions about gay marriage, no less a luminary than Vice President Joe Biden said: “I think ‘Will & Grace’ did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done.”

Yet for some gay viewers like me, it was hard not to feel as if “Will & Grace” wasn’t also a form of compromise, a Faustian bargain whose chits are now being called in. Certainly the show did well to hint at the complexity and diversity of gay lives being lived in contemporary America: Consider the uncommonly melancholy, Season 3 story arc that featured Patrick Dempsey as a sports reporter who hits it off with Will, but who adamantly refuses to come out of the closet; or Bobby Cannavale’s Emmy-winning work as Vince D’Angelo, a gruff and macho Italian-American cop who was Will’s on-again, off-again boyfriend for most of the later seasons.

What lingers and gnaws about “Will & Grace,” though, are the categories it created to identify its gay male characters, and the knowingly ironic, deliberately politically incorrect comedy it used to so regularly undermine them. Will was the classic “straight-acting” gay guy whose lack of feminine affectation might actually have been a sign of his lingering self-hatred. (It was eventually revealed that his father, played by the late director Sydney Pollack, remained deeply embarrassed by his son.) Jack was the prototypical flamer, the aficionado of show tunes and Cher and saucy quips, a guy who doesn’t exercise at the gym so much as gape at the muscular men all around him.

Certainly I’m not trying to suggest that there’s anything wrong with real-life gay men whose behavior does indeed hew to those TV models. And maybe it’s unfair to ask for more from a sitcom, a form whose characters are always defined by one or two traits. But the “Will” and “Jack” categories became a too-easy shorthand, a way for straight people to process and ultimately compartmentalize gay people. Surely I can’t be the only gay man who’s been told dozens of times over the past decade: “You’re more of a Will than a Jack.” As if one’s personality couldn’t possibly include aspects of both Will and Jack, or neither of them. As if it’s OK to simplify someone’s humanity – to turn him, in effect, into a sitcom character — so long as it’s being done with “tolerance.”

Arguably the even greater sin of “Will & Grace”: It asked gay people to be complicit in their own marginalization, to smilingly accept that straight America is always going to view them as a bit of joke. The writing on the show frequently revolved around cringe-inducing double-entendres, about “back doors” and “tight ends.” Worse still were the hateful epithets presented in ironic quotation marks. On the third season episode titled “My Uncle the Car,” in which Jack was inexplicably convinced that his father was African-American, Will refers to him as “The Notorious F.A.G.” — a noxious one-liner that seemed to invoke the canard that, just as it’s somehow OK for blacks to use the n-word, it’s also acceptable for gays to call one another “fag.”

And many more weeks than not, Will’s quest for true love turned into broad, senseless mayhem (to wit: Should Grace marry a gay Canadian played by Taye Diggs so that he can obtain a green card and he and Will can continue dating?). Will’s final-season reunion with Cannavale’s Vince notwithstanding, the show mostly indulged a deeply conservative, heterosexist mind-set: Gay relationships are farcical, quixotic, never going to work out, whereas straight ones (like Grace’s ongoing, seasons-long romance with Harry Connick Jr.’s Leo) are the serious, complicated ones that matter.

Yeah, sure, it’s just a sitcom, and was never trying to solve all the problems of the world — I get it. And, certainly, no fight for equality has ever been entirely won without popular works — from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” to “Stand and Deliver” to “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” — that soften the potentially jagged and discomfiting edges of their minority characters. Yet what’s exasperating is that, nearly 15 years after “Will & Grace” began airing, it’s still business as usual when it comes to portrayals of gays on television; the model that show created, and the modes by which it operated, are now even more firmly entrenched in the culture than ever before.

In 2003, Bravo premiered “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” a reality makeover series about gay men helping straight men become less oafish — and yet another show for which LGBT viewers were expected to cheer, simply because it placed gay men at its center. But the premise of the show was odious, and its execution even more insulting because “Queer Eye” reduced male homosexuality to five categories — fashion, beauty, decorating, food and culture — and transformed its hosts into fairy godmothers, emphasis on the fairy. The hosts, who appeared as sexless figures, generated all of their identity and pride from getting heterosexual men to tuck in their shirts and wax their backs. Which is to say, even at the center of the show, they were reduced to supporting players in straight people’s lives.

The show also marked the first time we started to see gay men on television willingly play the roles they had been assigned by the heteronormative culture – they began turning themselves into “Wills” and “Jacks” so that the rest of the world might recognize and embrace them. It’s a disheartening trend that keeps recurring on reality television, from Bravo’s “Boy Meets Boy” (2003) to Logo’s “The A-List” (2010–2011). It’s perhaps most visible on Andy Cohen’s bizarre Bravo talk show “Watch What Happens: Live,” where the urbane host swills cocktails and challenges guests like Meryl Streep to a round of marry, shag or kill. I don’t know Mr. Cohen, and acknowledge that in real life he might well be cheerfully pop-culture obsessed, perpetually on, utterly indifferent to substantive conversation, and forever equipped with tart one-liners —and thus not “performing” at all on “Watch What Happens: Live.” But that also doesn’t excuse his show from drifting dangerously close to a kind of gay minstrelsy.

Back in the realm of scripted television, the landscape isn’t much more promising. On “Glee,” there are the cute musical-theater junkies, Blaine (Damien Criss) and Kurt (Chris Coffer) — though, it can feel like we’re watching “The Muppet Babies” version of Will and Jack, one square-jawed and suave, the other given to frequent outbursts of jazz hands. “Modern Family” — beloved by both the Obamas and the Romneys (go figure) — is currently the highest-ranked show to prominently feature gay characters: longtime couple Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet), who are the adoptive parents of a Vietnamese child named Lily. This sitcom at least tries to put forth an original, idiosyncratic male-male relationship: One especially witty episode, in which Mitchell and Cam decide to build a life-size castle for Lily, neatly hinted at the anxieties gay male parents feel to prove their masculine bona fides to their children — and to provide for them even more spectacularly than straight parents might. Winningly and warmly played by Ferguson and Stonestreet, the characters' identities aren’t without complications (the doughy Cam turns out to be a former University of Illinois football player who grew up on a farm in Missouri). But ultimately Mitchell comes off as the neurotic fussbudget Will figure, while Cam is the outlandish Jack — they mostly seem to represent another set of stereotypes: the idea that in gay relationships, one man plays the “husband” and the other plays the “wife.” (The show addressed this very issue in one episode, in which Cam and Mitchell explain their relationships in these terms to their respective fathers. Clever, perhaps, but how much more resonant might it have been if they attempted to obliterate these labels entirely and force their square dads to get with the times?)

What links all of these gay figures is their cheerfulness and earnestness and fundamental inoffensiveness – their “Will”-ingness to be the kind of gay men whom straight America can keep as their mascots. (And let’s not even get started on the fact that, post–”Will and Grace,” mainstream television has rendered lesbians all but invisible, save for Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, and a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them secondary characters on “Boardwalk Empire” and “True Blood.”)

I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t some writers and performers out there making a valiant effort, or that there aren’t unexpectedly complex gay characters to be found. On “Mad Men,” Bryan Batt did a fine job with limited screen time illuminating the assorted deceptions of an uncomfortably closeted gay man living in the early 1960s; the superb  scenery-chewer Christian Borle, on the otherwise unwatchable “Smash,” puts forth a deft mixture of bitchy, butch and unsentimental as the composer Tom Levitt.

More intriguing, the terrific Adam Pally as the chubby, schlubby, stereotype-defiant Max on “Happy Endings,” a “‘Friends’-flavored comedy about six male and female pals in Chicago. The show itself plays deftly with straight America’s perceptions of gay life: One early episode revolved around Adam’s best friend Penny (played by Casey Wilson) deciding he wasn’t “gay” enough and that she wanted “a gay who will watch house-flipping shows with me, and grab my boobs in a platonic way.” Conversely, Damon Wayans Jr.’s character Brad is obsessively manicured and frequently effeminate, which his wife (Eliza Coupe) finds sexually attractive.

Even the fall season’s other gay-themed effort, “The New Normal” — about a couple (played by Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells), who hire a surrogate (Georgia King) with a racist, homophobic conservative mother who deeply disapproves of the arrangement — gamely tries to reckon with the tricky intersection of sexuality, religion and politics. (If only the comedy wasn’t of the weary “White Tea Party Lady Cheerfully Mocks ‘the Gays’” sort.)

But we still seem further away than ever from a show that absolves gay people of the burden of having to play unimpeachable saints or lovable scamps; a show that takes homosexuality for granted, the way most television series take heterosexuality for granted — as something that doesn’t need to be quantified and categorized; as something that just is. (Even on “Happy Endings,” poor Max has to be tagged with a label — he’s “a straight dude who likes dudes” but not a “real gay.”)

In a way, I guess what I’m really asking for is something akin to a gay "Mentalist" or the lesbian "Private Practice" a mainstream entertainment that doesn’t make a precious fuss about its characters' homosexuality, but doesn’t deny or soft-pedal it, either. Perhaps the best recent example I can offer is the lesbian-themed movie “The Kids Are All Right” (2010) — an unironic, unself-conscious portrait of a complicated, occasionally tortured same-sex marriage. That film didn’t try to argue, This is what it means to be lesbian. It argued, instead, This is what it means to be human — and that subtle but essential distinction is what made it quietly revolutionary. (Hope for LGBT viewers: A television series adaptation of the film is said to be in the works for HBO.)

For as long as we keep accepting the status quo, though, and continue operating under the misguided impression that the sheer quantity of gay characters on television somehow matters more than the quality of those representations, well, we might as well be living in 1998. No one is denying “Will & Grace” its place in cultural history, as the game-changer that brought homosexuality out of the TV closet. But the time has come to bury the king. Gay and straight viewers alike now deserve something better — works that carry us along into the age of equality.

By Christopher Kelly

Christopher Kelly is a writer-at-large for the Texas Monthly.

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David Kohan Happy Endings Lgbt Mad Men Max Mutchnick Modern Family Partners Smash The New Normal Tv Will And Grace