Monday, January 23, 2006
by Wayne Besen
When a gay friend found out that NBC was canceling Will & Grace he was ecstatic. He derisively called the show "Will & Disgrace" and compared it to a minstrel show because the effeminate homosexual "Jack," played by Sean Hayes, is consistently the butt of jokes. He is right that Jack is often the punch line, but I think historically this sitcom will go down as a knockout success for the gay community.
Will & Grace isn't perfect, but it came along at the perfect time and bailed gay America out of potential primetime disaster. Ellen had recently come out and her show quickly collapsed. Many critics blamed the gay content for its demise, and even lesbian activist Chastity Bono told Daily Variety that "Ellen" was "too gay."
There was a real danger that the lesson network executives might have taken from Ellen was that mainstream audiences would not accept gay lead characters. Into this political and cultural minefield stepped Will & Grace. Thankfully, it was timely, unquestionably funny and proved that largely straight audiences can embrace gay subject matter. Where would we be today without this show rising like a phoenix from the ashes of Ellen?
Nonetheless, Will's (Eric McCormack) moribund sex life continues to irritate gay people. The man is obviously attractive and successful, yet he fritters away his Saturday nights with Grace (Debra Messing), whining about men he would surely get, if he would just lose her. I'll be the first to admit that I'd like to see the last episode (May 18) end with the perennially frustrated Will cruising a seedy leather bar and leaving at 3am in a drunken stupor with a shirtless and tattooed guy named Spike.
The pragmatist in me, however, realizes that explicit sexuality isn't what this show is about. Will & Grace introduced gay people to millions of Americans and brought us into their living rooms. Instead of deriding Will & Grace, the gay community owes David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the show's co-creators and executive producers, a debt of gratitude. They made it possible for the networks to take gay-themed shows seriously.
While criticisms of the show are valid, they also are made in a vacuum, which overlooks the historical time period of the show. It seems programming that features minorities always begins with stereotypes, before the group branches out to more complex archetypes.
Let's remember that before Denzel Washington could become a superstar, America had to endure less threatening African Americans such as Jimmie Walker, who played JJ on the sitcom Good Times, and liked to mindlessly shout "Dynamite" in his Chicago housing project.
In a similar fashion, the gay characters in Will & Grace ingratiated themselves with Americans who were otherwise fearful of homosexuality. This has led to increasing cultural comfort and opened the door for more realistic portrayals of gays and lesbians.
For example, Desperate Housewives, a phenomenally popular sitcom particularly beloved in the so-called Red States, has a complex gay teenage character. On NBC's Book of Daniel, the preacher has a gay son. And, of course, the remarkable success of Brokeback Mountain will only lead to more gay-themed shows.
Still, there is a long way to go before gay people are afforded equality in Hollywood. ABC television network recently cancelled the reality series "Welcome to the Neighborhood," where neighbors got to choose from competing families to see who would be invited to move into a subdivision.
After a gay couple with children was selected, the show was mysteriously pulled. ABC claims that the gay winners had nothing to do with their decision. Yet, critics point out that the network was wooing Evangelical Christians to support their wildly profitable "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
Sadly, "Welcome to the Neighborhood" was exactly what America needs to see. Even Jim Stewart, who in an early episode said, "I would not tolerate a homosexual couple moving into this neighborhood" came around. It turns out that he had a gay son and the show helped him reconcile the strained relationship.
"I'd say to ABC, 'Start showing this right now,' " Mr. Stewart told The New York Times. "It has a message that needs to be heard by everyone."
The lesson of the unseen ABC reality show highlights the reason Will & Grace was so instrumental: Once you allow gay families into your living room, they are inevitably accepted into the neighborhood of shared humanity.
Will & Grace may be past its prime, but it did set the stage for a primetime line-up that includes ever-evolving gay shows and characters.
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