Time Magazine -- October 25, 1999


Gay characters have quietly become hot. Can their love lives?

The first Tuesday of his second season on the air was a big day for Will Truman. Will, the male half of NBC's Will & Grace, went on a date, after spending last year setting an endurance record for getting over a painful breakup. The date was with a hunky bookstore clerk we saw for all of five teasing seconds, but it was a date nonetheless. His other accomplishment: the Top-20 W&G beat its straight-couple neighbor, ABC's Dharma & Greg, in the first round of a pitched battle for ratings.

And there you have the state of gayness on television in 1999: TV has come out, within fuzzily defined but undeniable limits. Since the much touted coming out of Ellen DeGeneres in 1997 -- and the much noted rapid demise of her sitcom in the following season -- prime time has seen an influx of popular, prominent and well-rounded gay characters without Ellen-esque audience or advertiser cavils.

There are nearly 30 gay or lesbian characters in prime time (depending on how you count and categorize them). Most are post-Ellen additions, and they are no longer limited to bit roles and punch lines (though TNT dropped a stereotypically gay "character" from World Championship Wrestling after receiving complaints about gay bashing). ABC's Oh Grow Up and Wasteland feature gay leads with actual, if tentative, love lives (Ford, a lawyer who's just left his marriage, and Russell, a closeted soap actor).

Interestingly, in a season of protest over the underrepresentation of racial minorities, series creators have managed to add gay characters without getting much pressure to do so. One factor is that while coming out is still daunting to actors, there are a number of openly gay TV writers and producers, including Wasteland's Kevin Williamson, Oh Grow Up's Alan Ball and W&G's co-creator and co-executive producer Max Mutchnick.

Mutchnick, Ball and Williamson are mum on how much of their characters' love lives audiences will see this season, and network execs' willingness to show air kisses among actual gay characters is vague and jittery at best. Weirdly, both Wasteland and Oh Grow Up have sent their gay men on dates with men who turned out to be straight. Williamson says Russell will have an active love life, but Ball and Mutchnick say they're not that interested in entering the bedrooms of their straight or gay characters. True, that's convenient. But in a sense, to focus on the Kiss Question casts the issue in terms of the schoolyard obsession of homophobes: What do they do together? Do they kiss on the lips?

Ironically, dialing down the sexual controversy has allowed W&G writers to nurture the title pair's "sexless marriage," one of TV's richest male-female relationships. "We were interested in exploring what happens between a man and a woman when sex isn't a factor," says Mutchnick. it has also enabled the writers to develop the wonderful bipolar characters of straightlaced Will and his unapologetically flaming pal Jack and to show that physical love is not the sum of a gay person's identity.

Of course, physical love ain't chopped liver, either. Avoiding all one-on-one contact is a lacuna that will become all the more glaring as babes like Will and Ford remain unattached. Even actor McCormack said this summer that he felt Will was ready for an on-air kiss. As Ford tells his estranged wife, "Sooner or later, I'm going to end up naked, in bed, with another man." But when he does, he may be bound by TV's answer to the military's fumbling version of tolerance. Go ahead and ask, and please do tell. Just, for the love of God, don't show.

--James Poniewozik

Reviews | Oh Grow Up