First openly gay lead character arrives

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Wednesday March 7, 2018
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We love Alan Cumming. There we were in the slough of despond for oh-so-many reasons, nearly all of them beginning and ending with Trump. We were hunkered down on the East Coast (or "the elite coast" as the Trump folks call it, like their prez isn't from New York), in the midst of a hellacious nor'easter blithely referred to on the national news as a "bomb cyclone," when we saw a story pop up on our Twitter feed with this headline: "Alan Cumming slams Trump, says it's important to show same-sex couples on network TV."

That headline followed this delightful tweet on March 2: "This is the second day I have been wearing my pajamas. And they're actually my pajamas. I wore them in bed too. And you thought Donald Trump was spiraling."

The Emmy-nominated and Tony-winning actor, whom we were fortunate to see on stage in "Cabaret" 20 years ago, has always been willing to take risks in his acting and his life. Cumming has received a plethora of awards from GLAAD, HRC and even an OBE from the Queen (despite being Scottish) for his decades of work for LGBT people. His latest venture is groundbreaking: Cumming will play the first openly gay lead character in a network drama.

We know it's 2018, and this should have happened long ago. But it didn't, so let's celebrate that it's happening now, and the person taking the pick-axe to the shibboleth (how's that for a mixed metaphor?) that we can't have gays or lesbians as lead characters is himself outspokenly bisexual and married to another man.

"Instinct" is based on "Murder Games," a novel by the prolific James Patterson, everyone's guilty pleasure. Cumming, who co-starred in the CBS drama "The Good Wife" for several seasons and has been the host of PBS's Masterpiece Mystery since 2008, plays Dr. Dylan Reinhart, author, university professor and former CIA operative. And husband. This isn't one of those "they say he's gay but there are no other gays within a 50-mile radius" series.

As "Instinct" opens, Reinhart is having difficulty with his second novel. His editor, played by Whoopi Goldberg pretending to play someone other than Whoopi Goldberg, pronounces the book "flat" and suggests he tap into whatever he tapped into for his previous book - which was his former life in the CIA.

Enter NYPD detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Nvakovic), who seeks Reinhart's help when a serial killer starts using his book as a template for the killings. But there's more going on with this case than meets the eye. Other cast members include "Lost" alum Naveen Andrews as a fellow CIA operative, Daniel Ings ("The Crown") as Reinhart's husband Tracy, and Sharon Leal ("Supergirl") as Lt. Jasmine Gooden.

Showrunner Michael Rauch said at the Television Critic's Association winter press tour that Cumming's character being gay is huge, as there's never been a lead gay character on network before. Describing "Instinct," Rauch said, "While it's a procedural with a light tone, that's something that sets it apart." While Patterson's character is gay, Rauch said he's changed some of the male characters from Patterson's book to be women to "subvert traditional dynamics."

Cumming spoke at length about his role at the Television Critic's Association winter press tour. "Instinct" debuts, he said, "As the president is actively condoning, by his silence, violence and persecution against the LGBT community. I really do applaud everyone at CBS for having the courage to put 'Instinct' on right now in the kind of climate where you might not think to do that."

The actor describes Reinhart as a bit of a dandy and, "He's a former spy, he drives a motorbike, he's gay. He's kind of a little bit on the spectrum. He's a child musical prodigy. There's a lot going on. I think it's actually the perfect time [to have a gay leading character]. It needs to be done, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

Cumming also asserted that "Instinct" portrays a realistic same-sex relationship. "It's very important to me to show America," he said. "Why has there not been a gay leading character on a network drama? There hasn't been. So if you are going to show it to them, let's show it to them in an authentic and real way, and show a kind, loving relationship as well."

Cumming said portraying an authentic gay male marriage (Cumming has been married to husband Grant Shaffer since 2012) "was one of the reasons I wanted to do the show. I'm married to a man, so I brought that to the table. Most times when we see gay characters on American TV, their gayness is the prime thing," Cumming said. "Their gayness is sometimes the problem. What's refreshing about this is there's a successful relationship and they're supportive of each other. And [being gay] is also the fourth or fifth most interesting thing about this character."

But with the role comes responsibility, Cumming explained. "To be the first-ever network drama [with a gay lead] on U.S. television, it's an incredible thing and a terrible thing at the same time. It's another layer to the character. Socially and politically, especially at a time in America where gay people are being persecuted and our rights are being removed and the president is condoning the persecution against gay people by his silence, it was all the more important to have a character with a healthy same-sex marriage on TV. I applaud everyone on CBS for having the courage to put that on right now in a climate where that may not be the best time to do that. But I think it's the perfect time to do that."

It's also the perfect time to recognize the world's favorite drag queen, RuPaul Charles. The gay male activist and queen of all things will finally get a much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The ceremony will take place Fri., March 16, a day after the finale of "All Stars 3," and before Season 10 of "RuPaul's Drag Race" premieres. The star will be located right outside the World of Wonder offices, where the shows are produced. Sissy that walk, everyone! Also, Christina Aguilera will be a guest judge on the March 22 episode of "Drag Race," so set those DVRs because that will be a must-see.

While CBS is coming out and our queen is getting a star, NBC has revised an actual gay story to make it straight. "Rise," the new musical drama series that's been getting so much buzz, premieres March 13. The series is based on a book about the life of a closeted gay teacher and his work with drama students at a Pennsylvania high school.

Jason Katims, who is the showrunner and executive producer of "Rise," which is half "Glee," half "Fame," revised the main character. As Katims told the Television Critics Association winter press tour, "We took [the book] as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it my own story. With Lou's family life and Lou's family itself, there's a lot of reimagination. Not just in terms of gay or straight, but in terms of the family structure."

As we always say, when we're behind the camera our stories are in front of the camera. Alas, it can work in reverse. What's especially disappointing about Katims' decision to straight-wash the story of Lou Volpe is that we desperately need stories of LGBT teachers. And Katims is a fabulous showrunner: his previous series include one of our all-time faves, "Roswell," the cult favorite "Friday Night Lights" and the beloved "Parenthood."

Despite excising the gayness from Michael Sokolove's book "Drama High," Katims said "Rise" won't "shy away from issues of sexuality." "Rise" will include a trans character and a young closeted character in the main cast. Katims explained, "I was inspired to tell the story of Michael [Ellie Desautels, who identifies as non-binary], this transgender character, and Simon [Ted Sutherland], who's dealing with his sexuality and growing up in a very conservative, religious family. Those stories felt like they resonated with me as a storyteller, I wanted to lean into that."

What we don't get is why Katims forced himself into a story that is not his story. Sokolove's book isn't a novel, it's nonfiction, and the central figure is the gay drama teacher, Lou Volpe. In Katims' revision, Lou is a married family man. That might be explicable in and of itself, but what's the focal point of the story? Lou is putting on a production of "Spring Awakening," a musical about the sexual awakening of a group of students in which the romance between two male characters is key. The production isn't any one of a bazillion musicals with no gay issues, but one of the few where gay is central to the plot. Nevertheless, there is much to see in "Rise," and for those of us who still miss "Glee," it's definitely worth watching.

Remember when "American Idol" was leaving forever? March 11 the show that launched a bazillion voices is back, this time on ABC, while its first star, Kelly Clarkson, joins "The Voice" on NBC as a judge.

King cake

We will watch Regina King in anything. There are a plethora of great black actresses on TV right now, but the Emmy-winning King is one of the most versatile. When we read some months back that she would be starring in Veena Sud's ("The Killing") new original series for Netflix, we knew the new 10-episode series, "Seven Seconds," would be great because King elevates everything she stars in.

To say "Seven Seconds" is a drama for these times is to understate. The premise is simple enough: A black teenager from Jersey City, Brenton Butler, is accidentally run over by a white police officer, Pete Jablonski (Beau Knapp). A cover-up ensues, and racial tensions explode. "Fruitvale Station" meets "The Wire."

Depicting race on the small screen has always been complex: showrunners must walk the line between authentic portrayals that black audiences will recognize and identify with and allowing white audiences entree without feeling too much guilt. That delicate balance threatens to unmoor "Seven Seconds" at various points, but the focal point of King's portrayal of Latrice Butler, mother of the dead boy, keeps it anchored.

"Seven Seconds" would be easy if it were just about a white cop killing a black teen, albeit by accident. But as is so often the case in real life, it's the cover-up that is the crime. And in committing that crime, more than one life is lost.

Where the series most invites comparison with "The Wire" is in how the intermingled stories play out. The cop is not a bad guy. He was rushing to the hospital to meet his pregnant wife when he hit the boy. He didn't see him, it was an accident.

But a white cop and a black teen is never merely an accident. And that is where everything unravels when the hapless and shattered Jablonski calls his captain, who decides if no one saw the crime, lying about what happened will be the best reframing of the story, saving Jablonski's career as well as the department. Then all hell breaks lose.

The opening sequence is as beautiful as it is harrowing: the wheel of a bike spins, a boot flies up from the force of the impact, then volumes of blood spread across the impossibly white snow. Later, assistant DA K.J. Harper (English actress Clare-Hope Ashitey) stands in front of the scene of the killing. We see her face first as she looks down. Then the camera pans way back and the spot looks like a desolate killing field. Mountains of snow with dirt and leaves embedded, a huge swath of rust-colored blood beneath, and in the distance, the iconic and ironic figure of the Statue of Liberty. It's a haunting image that bespeaks everything that's wrong right now and how the values we claim as American seem so close, yet remain tantalizingly out of reach for so many.

This is a series about race, about justice, and about how we each retreat to our individual protective communities when things go wrong. And so the police rally round Jablonski and thuggify Brenton Butler as a gang member (he's not). There are so many nuances to "Seven Seconds." But over all there is Regina King. And that's why you must see this.

If you need something lighter - and we all need something light right now - and you somehow have missed it, the Netflix reboot of "Queer Eye" is fabulous. It's such a deep, engaging, political, snarky series. Watch.

Finally, Pushcart Prize winner Celeste Ng, author of the Amazon book of the year "Little Fires Everywhere," revealed some news on March 2: Her novel will become a new TV series. The adaptation is being executive produced by two female powerhouses, Kerry Washington ("Scandal") and Reese Witherspoon ("Big Little Lies"). Washington is in her final season of "Scandal," and Witherspoon, who also executive produced "Big Little Lies," has become a powerhouse in bringing women's stories to both big ("Wild") and small screens. "Little Fires Everywhere" is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in the 1990s, and focuses on two women whose lives and families are brought together by the complicated interactions of their children.

So for the first gay lead on network, as much drag as you can handle, new singers queer and straight, and the usual Sturm und Drang from the Beltway, you know you really must stay tuned.

Alan Cumming will play the first openly gay lead character in a network drama in CBS' "Instinct." Photo: CBS-TV

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