Arts & Culture » Television

Say goodbye to LGBT characters on TV

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Tituss Burgess on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Photo: Courtesy Netflix
Tituss Burgess on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Photo: Courtesy Netflix  

It's that time again: May brings not just flowers, but season and series finales. Season finales we can handle, but the series finales of shows we love? Hard, very hard. Harder still is knowing we will lose a plethora of lesbian and gay characters. And with so few LGBT characters in scripted series, we can ill afford to lose as many as are on this season's chopping block.

We've already said goodbye to "Scandal," and even though it's only been a couple weeks, the withdrawal pangs are strong on Thursday nights. "The Americans" has also been one of those iconic series we assumed would just keep going through the Trump years, because what could be more appropriate for the Trump era than a drama about Russian sleeper agents? Watching the episodes tick out is also painful.

The final season of "The Fosters" feels like losing family. The series has been such a gay mainstay that we can't imagine it not being there. Freeform is promoting the finale and giving it a three-night arc, June 4-6. Set your DVRs, it's going to be a massive ugly cry, especially since Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum) are among the few lesbian characters on the tube right now, and there are other LGB characters on the show as well.

The final season of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" feels much the same way. The final season of the complex, quirky, fabulous, queer, omg-did-they-just-do-that Netflix series will be available May 30. Tituss Burgess playing one of the best gay characters on TV, Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane have all been superb in their roles. But Ellie Klemper's Kimmy makes the series. So much has happened over the course of four seasons since Kimmy fled that cult. And this show is, in so many respects, a statement about who and where we are right now. The cults are out there, and escaping isn't as simple as we like to tell ourselves. "UKS" is our cautionary tale and our story of redemption. Tina Fey has done some great work over the last 20+ years writing TV comedy, between "SNL" and "30 Rock," but "UKS" is her opus.

For all the touting of "Roseanne," there's been a working-class comedy on ABC for nine seasons now. Nine. And it's been funny, well-acted, often edgy and, even though it was led by an actress who is GOP in real life, she wasn't out there making white supremacist statements and folding them into the show. "The Middle" ends its nine-season stint on May 22 with an hour-long series finale. The show has been nominated for numerous awards over the years, particularly for its young actors.

Emmy-winner Patricia Heaton, long a mainstay of TV comedy ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), is not one of our faves due to her GOP politics, but those aren't in evidence on "The Middle." What has been in evidence is the harried working mom of three of a working-class Midwestern Indiana family who is struggling to make it all work and failing a lot. The realism of "The Middle" - perennially messy house with things that never get fixed, hideous afghans that cover everyone as the family watches TV together on the hideous sofa, lots of fast-food dinners mom picks up on her way home from work after retrieving kids from school and just trying to keep it together - made us nod our heads, yes, absolutely, been there, done that.

"The Middle" also had a gay storyline for nearly half the series. Low-key, recurring character, but the kind of ultimate coming-out that was both cheer-worthy and made us reach for the tissues because it was so believable. When middle-child Sue (the fantastic Eden Sher) gets her first boyfriend, we are thrilled for her. The girl no one ever remembers needs her own cheering section. Then Sue brings Brad (Brock Ciarlelli) home and everyone sees it but her: He's so gay. Not just could-just-be-metrosexual gay, but flaming in-your-face-Mike-Pence-Adam-Rippon-pirouette kind of gay. Except he doesn't know it yet. So over the years as he helps Sue with her clothing choices and various other gay-best-friend things, and she moves on to another boy, and he heads off to college, we waited and wondered, and then it happened: He came out. Just like real life.

So yeah, we will miss "The Middle" and its paean to working-class life, struggle, never having enough money, effed-up relatives, trying to do the best for the kids, accepting gayness because it's best for that person, and all the things that never got the headlines "Roseanne" has.


Champion gay

The NBC jury is still out on whether its new gay-themed sitcom "Champions" will be renewed for a second season. Not being a huge sitcom fan, we found the show by accident when NBC slid it in after "Will & Grace" (which has been renewed for what will be season 11, if we pretend that 12-year hiatus didn't happen, which everyone is pretending). "Champions" is Mindy Kahling's baby, and it is hilarious and unlike anything else on the tube right now, with its young, flamboyantly gay teenage Indian lead (JJ Totah as Michael).

There are so many reasons to renew "Champions," but they all begin and end with Totah. This kid is fabulous in the truest and broadest sense. He has pitch-perfect comedic timing, the theatre and pop-culture references he makes are the highest of camp, and as the half-Asian, half-white gay son of Kahling's Priya and Anders Holm's Vince, he's more than just a diversity symbol, he's representing for gay kids everywhere just like him. NBC is notorious for not giving sitcoms enough time to find an audience, but if you're going to drop a new show in mid-season and do nothing to promote it, at least watch your own show once or twice to see that you have a major star you don't want to lose.

Also in the question-mark category is "black-ish," which as of May 4 had not been renewed or cancelled. The series has been one of the most consistently funny shows on TV, as well as delivering a much-needed black voice to the sitcom landscape. Tracee Ellis Ross won an historic Emmy this year, the first black actress in 37 years to win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

The show also has lesbian characters as well as lesbian actresses Wanda Sykes and Raven-Symoné. And the acting is stellar. Yara Shahidi, who plays the oldest daughter, Zoey, currently stars in the spin-off series "grown-ish," on Freeform. We certainly hope ABC renews the series, which has taken a dark turn recently as (spoiler alert) Bo (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre (Anthony Anderson) appear to be breaking up after 20 years of marriage, five kids and a badly timed kitchen renovation. What happens next is up to ABC, but it would be a mistake to drop this show now. If nothing else, it's an antidote to "Roseanne."

Two other series with LGBTQ characters are in question. CBS' much-hyped new series "Instinct" is the first network series to feature a gay male lead, with Alan Cumming's Dr. Dylan Reinhart as a former CIA agent turned professor and best-selling author. Cumming is superb as always, but the show is light fare and not up to the standards set for Cumming's previous roles. The final season of "The Good Wife" was a hot mess, but Cumming was still strong, despite some ridiculous things his character, Eli Gold, was expected to do. Not that these are comparable series, but they do intersect where serious drama diverges into moments of dark comedy. We can't tell exactly what's wrong with "Instinct," but it seems that, unlike "NCIS" or other CBS procedurals, it hasn't found its footing. The show is also limited by the ratings-crusher of a Sunday-night 8 p.m. time slot, where it is lodged between "60 Minutes" and "NCIS: Los Angeles."

Despite Cumming's star power, it's hard for us to see this series being renewed. And if it's cancelled, the message execs will take away will be: "Solo lead gay character won't work." Not "We threw this show down in March, right before the basketball season, and it had no opportunity to gain a following when it was either not aired at all or aired 49 minutes late."

"Rise" is a perfectly serviceable drama that skates between "Glee" and "Friday Night Lights." It has several gay characters as well as a trans character played by a non-binary actor. We would like to see this show renewed for those characterizations alone, but that's not how ratings work. "Rise" is on in the TV wasteland that is Tuesday night, filling the slot of the beloved "This Is Us," on hiatus until fall. The show's intro is "The Voice," which someone thought made sense, but doesn't. "Rise" has a lot of strong performances by young actors and some powerful messaging, but it has yet to find its dramatic footing.


Anatomy lesson

Season finales are easier to handle because we know the shows we have long loved or are newly infatuated with are coming back. The question, always, is how changed will they be? "Grey's Anatomy" has been renewed for a 15th season, making it the second-longest-running scripted non-animated drama series currently on TV. ("The Simpsons" is in season 29, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is in season 19, and "NCIS" ties with "Grey's" for 15 seasons.)

We have loved "Grey's" since it began, and as we have grown older with the characters. It gave us the longest-running lesbian relationship in TV history (Callie and Arizona), and for that we will be forever grateful.

That said, "Grey's" kills someone off each season (often literally), and this season is destined to be the same. As the finale approaches, we know there's been an accident, because we saw the preview. Who will die is still a secret, and we don't like spoilers. But what we know for sure since the May 3 episode is Arizona (Jessica Capshaw) has decided to move to New York with her and Callie's daughter. (Sara Ramirez, who played Callie for a decade, left "Grey's" in May 2016, and has since joined the cast of "Madam Secretary.") This leaves no real lesbian characters on "Grey's," because the Italian woman Arizona has been having an affair with, Dr. Carina DeLuca (Stefania Spampinato), is a recurring character and bisexual, and has never been given enough air time for us to get to know her.

We hope "Grey's" won't drop lesbian characterizations, because they have been an iconic element to this series. "Grey's" made news last week when the series was featured in a viral tweet by New Mexico high school senior Krysta Montoya. Under her yearbook photo Montoya wrote: "Grey's Anatomy, Season 5, Episode 6, 39:40." When people didn't know what the reference meant, Montoya tweeted out that it was when Dr. Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) declared, "I am so, so, so gay." Montoya, who came out as a freshman, thought it was a good message to leave as she graduated. This is why we need lesbian and gay characters.

So for those keeping track, at the end of this season of TV, we will have lost quite a few lesbian and gay characters from series ending or from characters being taken out of play. We were devastated last week when "Last Tango in Halifax" killed off Kate, the black half of its interracial lesbian couple, right after she gave birth to her and Caroline's baby. We know from TV history, once a gay or lesbian character leaves a series, they are rarely replaced with a new one. "Grey's" never made any real effort to keep Arizona in the foreground and find her a new partner after Callie left for New York. Two mismatched attempts with characters we had no fealty toward and no interest in took Arizona even further from the foreground of the series. This is a common problem when a popular couple splits up, unless there is something else to hold them to the series. On "Scandal," Cyrus (Jeff Perry) survived James' (Dan Bucatinsky) murder because he was so central to the plot. But his pairing with Michael (Matthew Del Negro) never really gelled.

The number of scripted roles for lesbian and gay characters was down in this last calendar year from the previous one. And unless the dozen (or more: the season isn't over yet) lesbian and gay characters lost to series ending or characters being written off are replaced (which seems unlikely) it will be even lower at year's end. "Madam Secretary" has been renewed for a 5th season, which means bisexual non-binary character Kat Sandoval (Sara Ramirez) will return, so that's good news. One queer character who gets to live another day.

There isn't going to be another comedy hour to match Michelle Wolf's routine at the White House Correspondent's Dinner for either biting wit or furor, but Tina Fey is hosting the "SNL" finale of its 43rd season on May 22 with musical guest Nicki Minaj, so that should be a night of hilarity and political commentary.

Finally, if you missed gay Olympian Gus Kenworthy interviewing gay Olympian Adam Rippon about his current turn on "Dancing with the Stars" for "Nightline," skate on over to ABC.com to watch. It is, in a word, fabulous.

So for all the long goodbyes, the gayness still on the tube, and the gayness yet to be revealed (because "Pose" is coming in June!), you know you really must stay tuned.

Comments

Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook