Sweeps In The Closet
TV's sweeps month brings much gay content with little promotion
February sweeps month ushered in more queer television firsts than ever before, but you would never know it from the way networks keep their not-so-straight characters in the closet.
While cable stations promote the sexually explicit gay storylines in shows like "Queer As Folk" and "Oz," the networks tiptoe around the very existence of their queer characters. A few television dramas offer well-developed supporting characters who are allowed realistic gay and lesbian lives, as long as their storylines are never advertised on TV promos or even mentioned in the official program guides to the shows. Despite this invisibility, sweeps month heightened the development of these characters and their intimate relationships.
Besides centering storylines around killing vampires, stopping demons in their tracks and the usual teen angst, "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" has featured the slow and steady progression of a groundbreaking lesbian love story between Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson). Accepted by Buffy and the gang, the two witches have slow danced, had a quick kiss and even moved in together. But in the highlight sweeps episode, the relationship moved to another level when Tara and Willow shared an extended kiss.
While there have been other kisses -- mostly perfunctory -- between other gay and lesbian characters (not to mention long drawn-out liplocks between women who discuss how straight they are), there may never have been such an intimate kiss between two openly lesbian television characters in a relationship.
That Buffy's mother died in the episode further reinforces the "alternative family" theme that has been growing for some time among the group of friends, making Tara and Willow even more crucial in the Buffy universe. Television history has been made again, yet, from reading the show's official preview blurbs, you would have no idea that either of the characters were even in the episode, let alone lesbians.
"ER" followed a similar sweeps kiss-and-don't-tell pattern as "ER" chief Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) pursued openly lesbian psychiatrist Kim Legaspi (Elizabeth Mitchell). Their developing relationship, including Weaver's discovery that she wanted to be "more than friends" with Legaspi, was handled, for the most part, with remarkable sensitivity and subtlety.
All the unusual-to-TV lesbian couple intimacies -- morning showers, sharing shirts, late-night rendezvous, exchanging keys -- have been covered. The two even shared an electrifying bedroom scene that featured the world's sexiest hand kiss, for those who missed it. And miss it you might have, since the program synopses failed to ever mention any of these developments.
NBC finally came out of the closet with the relationship, with this week's episode blurb openly acknowledging the Weaver-Legaspi romance. Too bad the context was that everyone's favorite psychiatrist had been accused of sexually harassing a female patient. Yuck. Still, rumor has it that the relationship, originally slated to be short term, has been indefinitely extended.
In contrast, another network sweeps ploy is to explicitly publicize a one-time kiss between high-profile female stars for the high ratings such sensationalism can bring. WB television ads heavily hyped an episode of "Grosse Point" that showed "Buffy's" Sarah Michelle Geller (playing herself) hot to kiss "Grosse Point's" Marcy Sternfeld (Lindsay Sloane). The entire episode was a tease as Geller gushed over Sternfeld's body in oh-so-titillating ways. But when Sternfeld took it personally and preemptively planted a kiss on Geller, the Vampire Slayer reacted with horror and disgust.
The homophobic ending was summed up in a TV Guide headline: "Buffy kisses a girl ... Grosse!"
This territory, first charted by "Ally McBeal's" Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu, capitalizes on the taboo-breaking sensationalism of two women kissing, and ends up emphasizing the heterosexuality of the characters. Fun of this sort -- if you can call it that -- is set to continue next month as NBC's "Friends" Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) is rumored to lock lips with an old friend (played by Winona Ryder).
While the lesbian kiss -- closeted or not -- seems a de rigueur sweeps move, networks seem more ambivalent about their gay male characters' romantic moves. Sitcoms starring gay men are promoted and highly publicized, but it comes with the unspoken tradeoff of out gay male characters not having any sex.
The new CBS comedy "Some Of My Best Friends Are," about a gay man (Jason Bateman) and his straight roommate, and the award-winning "Will And Grace" feature gay male characters in lead roles. But CBS ensconces gay characters in an intensely homophobic straight world (didn't they notice that didn't work for Fox's short-lived, "Normal, Ohio"?). Meanwhile, NBC's poor Jack and Will suffer along without a lot of romance, much less sex.
But perhaps strangest of all is the WB's treatment of openly gay high schooler Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) on the soap opera-ish teen drama, "Dawson's Creek." Jack was pursued by the available and interested Tobey (David Monahan), who, it turns out, was "too gay" for Jack's taste. This interesting and realistic situation became the subject of long discussions with his best female friend, Jen (Michelle Williams), but was never mentioned in the official program description. In another episode, however, a misguided make-out session with Jen made top billing as Jack's "romance." Talk about false advertising.
The most charitable explanation for this ambivalent, closeted relationship between networks and their queer stepchildren is the fear of right wing retribution, a la ABC's "Ellen." The good news is that the television universe is filled with more queer characters than ever, some of them exploring the previously forbidden zone of intimate, loving relationships. How unfortunate that even as their series' characters ponder coming out of the closet, network execs are only willing to open the door a crack.