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Wednesday, May 22

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Airbags

PGTW20 A Gay Old Time

Will & Grace airs its last original episode this week. After eight years of countless (really, does anyone want to go back and count them?) guest stars, adventures and critical kudos, Will, Grace, Jack and Karen ride off into the syndication sunset. It's hard to believe that when the series bowed in 1998, most television shows classified homosexual characters in three major categories: amusing and flamboyant sidekick, noble (and usually dying) AIDS patient, or sexual deviant and predator.

Will & Grace isn't without its detractors. Some see Jack as nothing but a shallow stereotype that perpetuates the myth that all gay men are flaming drama queens. On the opposite end of the spectrum, lead character Will is practically a eunuch. Sure, Will kissed Jack on Good Morning America (and on the mouth), but that was for humor. It wasn't until recently, near the end of the series' eight-year run, that Will was shown passionately kissing James, played by Taye Diggs. (An interracial gay smooch? They went all out!) However, it still happened. Two men kissed each other on network television, and the world didn't end.

The late '70s satirical comedy Soap is often cited as groundbreaking. Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas, an openly gay man. Initially, Jodie dressed in women's clothing and considered having a sex change operation so he and his closeted football-playing boyfriend could have a "normal" life. His stereotypical "swishiness" caused an uproar in both the conservative and gay communities; some ABC affiliates refused to carry the show. (In fairness, the protests also included complaints against other "risqué" elements of the show.) However, the character was toned down — some say "nearly neuter[ed]" — to appease both sides, who, for perhaps the first time in history, were on a similar side. After Jodie broke up with his quarterback, he slept with women but never had another relationship with a man. When a child services agent asked Jodie, who wanted to be single father to a friend's child (which is a damn ballsy storyline for 1979), "Are you a practicing homosexual?" Jodie famously replied, "I don't have to practice. I'm very good at it."

Around the same time Soap went off the air, ABC's Dynasty became "the first prime-time network drama to feature an openly gay leading character." Steven Carrington had several male lovers (one of whom was accidentally killed by Steven's father, Blake) and claimed to be a homosexual. However, he later married two different women. In the end, however, Steven was in a relationship with a man. In 1989, the yuppie drama thirtysomething (again on ABC, hmmmm) caused controversy by showing two men in bed together... talking. Gasp! Protesters who were angered by this "sympathetic" representation of homosexuality tried and failed to convince all sponsors to pull their advertisements and support from the show.

The early to mid-'90s weren't much better. Roseanne, one of the most powerful women in television at the time, had to fight hard to keep a kiss between her character and one played by Mariel Hemingway on her — you guessed it — ABC comedy. Near the end of the series, Roseanne's mother admitted she was a lesbian, Martin Mull and Fred Willard played a scenery-chewing gay couple, and nary a peep was heard. But in 1994, Roseanne refused to bow to public and corporate pressure to cut the kiss. The episode aired in its entirety.

On FOX's Melrose Place, watching glamorous Los Angelinos hopping from bedroom to bedroom of this apartment complex was the main reason viewers tuned in. However, in 1994, the hot show got cold feet. In one scene, Matt, the openly gay neighbor, leaned in to kiss Rob (the best man in Billy and Allison's wedding), the camera cut away to a stunned Billy watching through his window — and the ever present Venetian blinds — as the drama unfolded. Well, cut away to however much surprise actor Andrew Shue could convey. The show had no problem showing steamy heterosexual love scenes, yet the mere thought of a peck between two men sent a panic through the fourth network.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, FOX's Ally McBeal titillated (ahem) viewers with an open-mouth liplock between actresses Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu in 1999. Of course, by then five years had passed. The television landscape had changed. Ellen Degeneres' character — and the actress as well — came out on Ellen in 1997. Will & Grace was a critical and ratings smash. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow started to have feelings for her Wiccan buddy Tara. Or maybe it's because girlkissing = HAWT and boykissing = gross! At least for Rupert Murdoch.

In 2000, paid cable brought us the U.S. version of Queer as Folk, the adventures of young gay men in Pittsburgh (the original British series was set in Manchester, England). Sapphic sister The L Word premiered four years later. These series occasionally tackled gay bashing, discrimination and everyday issues of being gay in today's America. They also featured sultry, same-sex, soft-core love scenes on a weekly basis. Reality TV got its turn with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which "The Fab 5" help heterosexual men learn the fine art of grooming, fashion, culture, and food from these experts. Some have bashed Queer Eye, calling it and other similar shows "the new gay minstrelsy." After all, the five fellas can help arrange a wedding but can't get married themselves. And, like Will & Grace Jack, their fabulosity paints a narrow stripe in representing gay Americans.

Gay (and transgendered) characters, once only found in urban centers, now "live" in Everwood, Colorado, and on Wisteria Lane, and in New Jersey (working for Tony Soprano, no less). Did Will & Grace help pave the way? Maybe. Or perhaps it's also a reflection of the changing times and people being more accepting of diversity. That's what I'd like to think.

Will & Grace, NBC, two-hour series finale, Thursday 7pm; Seasons 1-4 available on DVD
Soap, Seasons 1-4 available on DVD
Dynasty, Season 1 available on DVD
Roseanne, Seasons 1, 2, and 3 available on DVD (Season 4 available June 27, 2006)
Ally McBeal, "Ally on Sex and the Single Life" available on DVD
Queer as Folk, Seasons 1–5 available on DVD
The L Word, Seasons 1 and 2 available on DVD
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The Fab Five Collection" available on DVD

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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