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Arts & Culture » Television

Crystal-clear homophobia

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Billy Crystal played the first gay character on network<br>TV.
Billy Crystal played the first gay character on network
TV.  

And 2015 had been going so well. Pres. Obama even said three words never uttered before in prime time by a sitting president during the State of the Union Address: lesbian, bisexual and transgender. We got a little verklempt when we heard that part of the speech. And there was Speaker Boehner looking like the Grinch's orange twin. It was kinda perfect. Then, as always, sh*t happened.

A hella homophobia hit this week like a front coming in from somewhere very ugly. Homophobia is always more shocking coming from people we thought were our friends, like Billy Crystal, who played the first out gay character on TV back when we were infants in the landmark TV sitcom Soap .

Like all closet homophobes, Crystal later spent some time trying to walk back what he said, but you know, people who don't think this stuff don't have to worry about accidentally saying it. If you don't think it, you don't say it, and you don't have to walk it back. So simple. Crystal told the Television Critic's Association that graphic scenes of gay sex on TV have gone too far. He said "modern day" TV shows (he's only 66, but apparently talks like he's from another era) are guilty of "pushing it a little too far."

Crystal said, "I've seen some stuff recently on TV in different kinds of shows where the language or the explicit sex is really, you know, sometimes I get it, and sometimes I just feel like, 'Ah, that's too much for me.'" 

Later he said: "Sometimes shows, well, it's just pushing it a little too far for my taste, and I'm not going to reveal to you which ones they are. I hope people don't abuse it and shove it in our face â€" well, that sounds terrible â€" to the point where it feels like an everyday kind of thing."

Cue us screaming. Yes, it does sound terrible, all right. "Shove it in our face?" "An everyday kind of thing?" You mean, like heterosexual sex? Actually, for gay men and lesbians, sex is an everyday kind of thing, just like it is for their straight counterparts. 

And is there a single TV show where heterosexual sex isn't being shoved in our faces? Just last night we watched an episode of Mom where Bonnie's (Allison Janney) boyfriend Alvin was giving her cunnilingus. In prime time. That sitcom was followed by Alan (Jon Cryer) doing the same in Two and a Half Men. Obviously there is some face-shoving going on, but it seems to be heterosexual faces, not ours.

Kids watch these shows, yet Crystal's concerned about How to Get Away with Murder and Looking, which are the only two shows we can think of that have overt gay sex, and which are in the late-night zone? The last time we were this disappointed in a star we liked was when Prince came out against same-sex marriage.

Crystal had been talking about homophobia he had encountered when he starred as Jodie Dallas on the ABC sitcom Soap. Crystal said, "It was very difficult at the time. Jodie was really the first recurring [gay] character on network television, and it was a different time, it was 1977. So, yeah, it was awkward. It was tough. I did it in front of a live audience, and there were times where I would say to Bob, 'I love you,' and the audience would laugh nervously, because, you know, it's a long time ago. Then I'd feel this anger. I wanted to stop the tape and go, 'What is your problem?'"

Well, apparently, their problem was people like Crystal himself, who didn't want gays shoved in their faces. As always seems to be the case when people get caught with their homophobia showing, Crystal just exacerbated the problem by explaining himself with this defensive comment: "Why would there be anything offensive in what I said? When it gets too far either visually, now, that world exists, because it does for the hetero world, and I don't want to see that either. But when I feel it's a cause, when I feel it's 'You're going to like my lifestyle,' no matter what it is, I'm going to have a problem."

He said "lifestyle." That's the L word we do want erased. The thing is, Crystal was being interviewed about what it meant to play a gay character 40 years ago, less than a decade post-Stonewall. He was not being asked  what he thought about gay sex on TV today.

These comments remind us of what Peter Nowalk, the out gay showrunner for ABC's hit How to Get Away with Murder, for which star Viola Davis just won a Golden Globe, had to say about this very issue. When the show debuted, Nowalk asserted that he was putting a lot of gay sex (in addition to straight sex) in the show because he wanted people to get used to it. Like it was everyday. A natural part of life. Commonplace. What Crystal said is actually the problem: We need to have directors and writers shove gay sex in our faces, because that's how straight America will acclimate to the normalcy of it. Because it is, you know, normal.

 

Gay 'Days'

That's the perfect segue to Days of Our Lives, which is making gay sex normal in daytime. We've been doing this column for over 20 years now. We watched Bianca Montgomery and Luke Snyder be tortured, sex-deprived gay teens on All My Children and As the World Turns, respectively. It was especially difficult to believe a gay high school-then-college student was in purity mode, waiting to have sex until the "right time" when he actually had a boyfriend. Did the writers not remember that teenage boys want sex more than anyone on the planet? 

Thus, seeing a complicated gay storyline evolving on Days of Our Lives? Priceless. Especially in the wake of the ickiness from Crystal and another icky comment from African American actor Kevin Hart, who opined that he'd never be able to play a gay character because he couldn't "give it [his] all." Because you know, it's not acting. Neil Patrick Harris played the most notorious straight bed-hopper in sitcom history on How I Met Your Mother for a decade, but maybe NPH is just a better actor, since he managed to play super straight with no problem.

Back to Days. We thought the gays had left Salem when longtime Days star and Biggest Loser host Alison Sweeney exited Salem on Halloween. Sweeney played Sami for over 20 years, since she was a teenager. And while we knew Sweeney was leaving town, what we didn't know was that she was taking her son, Will (who is gay), with her. We didn't know what this meant for Will (Guy Wilson) and husband Sonny Kiriakis (Freddie Smith), since it's hard to keep a marriage together with an entire country between you and Sami, and Will had left Salem for Hollywood. But now that Will is back, well, all kinds of hell is breaking loose.

In an interview with Soap Opera Network back in November, Wilson gave a spoiler alert that infidelity was going to be a storyline for Will when he returned to Salem. Well, now Will is back, and yes, it's a full-on, soap-style cheating scandal, where one partner sleeps with another's ex-partner, except for once all the characters are gay.

Will has been spending time with his father, Lucas Horton (Bryan Datillo), bonding and working together, trying to solve a mystery, which has put Will on the front burner in several storylines, which means he's not going away any time soon. 

Meanwhile, during the time Will was MIA, his hot hubby was pining. We thought he might end up in bed with his hot ex, Paul Narita (the gorgeous, totally ripped Christopher Sean), who is a closeted baseball player. (Didn't we just see this same storyline about a closeted baseball player on CBS' Madam Secretary, and didn't it cause an international incident? Yes, we did. Something tells us there are a bunch of closeted baseball players just waiting to come out.)

The big conflict between Will and Sonny has always been their careers. As a reporter, Will is always traveling. Which leaves Sonny alone with nothing to do but wait for Will. It's what they fight about. Now they'll have something much bigger to fight about: Infidelity.

While Sonny and Paul were playing footsie but Sonny was still saving himself for Will (yeah, that still goes on, but whatever), last week, Paul finally got what he wanted: the steamy sex he was looking for. On the Jan. 8 and 9 episodes of Days, there's the gorgeous Paul in bed. With Will. Cue rim shot. (See what we did there?) Will was cough covering Paul for a story. Then he got a little too close to his subject. 

Thing is, Paul may be a player, but he doesn't know Will is Sonny's husband. As Sean told TV Guide, "Paul is not the villain in this triangle. Sure, he has animalistic urges and he pounced, but it's Will who was easily swayed. He wanted that forbidden fruit."

So apparently Will is the new Sami, who was always being lured or luring someone other than her partner du jour into bed. Like mother, like son. 

Can Will and Sonny's marriage survive the cheating? Maybe the two will come to an understanding: one-night stands, yes, emotional entanglements, no. Or maybe Will wants another piece of that fastball action of Paul's. We'll have to see how this plays out, but since Paul is in Salem for surgery on his pricey arm, he's on the canvas for some time. And who can say what kind of physical therapy he will need to get back in the game?

While we are loving the Days storyline, we just don't know what to do with the faux gay-marriage storyline on Two and a Half Men, which is heating up, not fading out. The hit sitcom is now in its 12th and final season, and ends next month. Yet not without controversy, and not without raising eyebrows and questions. When the final season began Oct. 30,  Alan (Jon Cryer) and Walden (Ashton Kutcher) got married in one of the more controversial storylines on the tube. There was a real kiss, but not a real marriage. Walden wants a child, and Alan wants to help him get one. So they got married, lied to the state, and now are fostering an adorable biracial six-year-old boy, Louis (Edan Alexander). Walden is in love with the child. And Alan wants what Walden wants, having already raised his own son, Jake.

Since the season resumed post-holidays, problems arose as their social worker discovered the two aren't really gay, and aren't really a couple. Or are they? On the Jan. 22 episode, Walden joins a group for foster dads where he talks about his husband in much the same way the men talk about their wives. There are some funny bits, but the bottom line, so-to-speak, ends up being the straight guys tell Walden and Alan that they are in fact a couple because they do in fact love each other, even if they don't have sex.

So: it's complicated. It's not a bromance. It's not a real gay relationship. Yet the real commitment in the lives of these two men is to each other and their son. Several episodes ago, Alan asked Walden about how the co-parenting of Louis would work since he and Walden would have to stay married for a least six months to placate the foster program. Alan made it clear that he had no problem with the arrangement, noting that this was the happiest he had been throughout all three of his marriages, the first two to women. The Jan. 22 episode ends with Alan the new member of the wives group.

We just don't know what to think about this. Women marry men and men marry women all the time on TV to get a child, and we don't object. Certainly the focus of Cam and Mitchell's relationship on ABC's Modern Family is their daughter, their marriage and their extended family. They are very gay, but they are not sexual. But the implication in TaaHM is that Walden and Alan's relationship is the same as that of a gay male couple.

We have long objected to the neutering of gay men on TV, and so greeted HTGAWM and Looking with excitement. Gay men do have sex, so why can't we show it? HTGAWM is riskier (and hotter) than Looking, but the gay sex is also framed differently. All the sex on HTGAWM is transgressive, so it's a different presentation from some of the lovely scenes we've seen on Looking.

We really like the sweetness in the scenes between Walden and Louis, because another thing we don't see enough of on TV is men being affectionate with children in a real and honest way. Yet we also know that the only reason Walden and Alan were allowed to foster a boy, when all the gay male couples on the tube from Scandal to Modern Family have girls, is because the audience knows they aren't really gay, so there's no sexual threat there. Just as there's no sexual threat in gay men adopting girls. Because TV also doesn't know how to present affection between men and children without sexualizing it.

Kutcher was on Ellen Jan. 23 and let slip some spoilers for the series finale. It's going to be amazing. Kutcher is actually playing the only character like Walden on the entirety of the TV landscape. Even on NBC's Parenthood, there is not this kind of fathering that we are seeing on TaaHM. So watch.

CBS is promoting this same "yes, we're really a couple" meme in their ads for the re-boot of the classic sitcom The Odd Couple. The show debuts Feb. 19 and stars Friends alum Matthew Perry in the Jack Klugman role of Oscar Madison, and Thomas Lennon in the Tony Randall role as the obsessively tidy Felix Unger. Just as in the original, we are expected to believe Felix is not gay. But the original debuted in 1970, and this is, Billy Crystal's queasiness aside, 2015. So Felix really could be gay this time around, and it would be more believable.

We're not sure any of this will work. Perry, a genius actor, has had a bad run with his last few series being cancelled. And while we loved Lennon on Reno 911, we aren't sure about him as Felix. Lennon last played Max on the terrible Sean Hayes sitcom Sean Saves the World. Lauren Graham, who leaves Parenthood when the series ends, plays Gaby, Oscar's ex-wife, and we'll watch anything Graham is in, so we'll keep you posted.

For gay sex being shoved in your face and that whole gay lifestyle being flaunted all the time, you know TV is the place to be, so you really must stay tuned. 

 

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