ABC a little too brazen in promoting its prime-time lesbian kiss

March 01, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A character played by Mariel Hemingway is going to share a lesbian kiss tonight with a character played by Roseanne Arnold.

And ABC is calling it "The Kiss," as if it were a landmark moment in TV history.

Welcome to the world of network hype, where anyone and anything that can be exploited for half a ratings point will be.

ABC was making all the right hype moves yesterday to maximize the audience for the episode of "Roseanne" that airs at 9 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

In the episode, Roseanne goes to a gay bar with Nancy (Sarah Bernhard) and has a fun time. But the fun time turns serious when Roseanne's enthusiasm is misinterpreted by one of Nancy's lesbian friends (Hemingway) and the woman kisses Roseanne.

At last count yesterday, the kiss between the two women lasts 3 1/2 seconds.

I say last count because that's part of the game ABC was playing yesterday with the press. It's a game that's been going on for several weeks now.

It started three weeks ago when Tom Arnold said ABC told him they were not going to air the episode. ABC let that story make headlines until its cycle was spent. Then, ABC came out and said it would air the episode, setting off another cycle of publicity.

Yesterday, the question was how much of the kiss would be shown and what version of tonight's episode we were talking about.

A copy of one version of the show has been circulated among some critics by Tom Arnold. In that version, there is reportedly nothing shocking about the kiss.

But ABC is now saying that might not be the version which airs tonight. Their message to critics: If you saw that version, write about it at your own peril.

"ABC has no comment; the curtain's come down," was the official ABC position from network spokesman Bill Saul yesterday.

Local affiliates created even more anticipation by saying they won't see the episode until 10 a.m. today, ostensibly because ABC executives were debating and re-editing the final version for airing tonight.

"[Today], I'll review the edited version of what I'm told is now a 3 1/2 -second kiss scene between Mariel Hemingway and Roseanne Arnold," WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander said yesterday.

Let me say something.

One, this is not the first lesbian kiss on prime-time TV, as the title of the episode might suggest.

NBC had an episode of "L.A. Law" that it titled "The Kiss" three seasons ago. In that episode, a character played by Amanda Donohoe kissed a character played by Michelle Greene. A few sponsors balked at advertising on the show, but the Republic weathered the scandal of such a thing happening on the holy ground of prime time.

Last season, Masterpiece Theatre ran a multi-part production titled "Portrait of a Marriage." It was the story of Victoria Sackville-West, and it had a number of very explicit bedroom scenes between Sackville-West and her lesbian lover. PBS said it received no complaints from viewers.

Hemingway has played a lesbian before, in the feature film "Personal Best." And she has even taken off her clothes on TV, as she did on the ABC show "Civil Wars" during the February sweeps last year to hype ratings.

Hemingway bares nothing tonight except her lips.

There's no genuine controversy here. We need to quit playing along with the hype machine every time its wheels start spinning out the siren call of higher ratings.

The Arnolds deserve praise for making a lesbian character, Nancy, a regular member of the cast. Television can relegate groups of people to the margins like no other institution in society; if you are not on TV, you don't exist.

But the Arnolds and ABC have cheapened the discussion of sexual orientation by their handling of this episode.

For the purpose of higher ratings, they have framed a show about an act of affection between two women so that viewers come to the screen expecting titillation if not a freak show.

Way to go, guys.

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