'Place' flirts with its own gay kiss

May 18, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It worked for "Roseanne" and ABC earlier this year. When Roseanne shared a kiss with a character played by Mariel Hemingway in an episode titled "The Kiss," it was the highest-rated "Roseanne" of the year.

And now, it's working for Fox and "Melrose Place" with an episode some in Hollywood are calling "Son of The Kiss," which may or may not show Doug Savant's character sharing a kiss with another gay character tonight.

Make no mistake, Fox and the producers of "Melrose Place" are practicing textbook hype with the will-they-or-won't-they? aspect of tonight's season finale.

But that doesn't make the event itself any less important for homosexual and heterosexual viewers alike. Whether or not Matt Fielding kisses another gay character tonight does, in fact, matter. It matters a lot. A line in the sand is about to be crossed on TV and, as most of us know by now, that usually means changes in attitudes in the real world.

On the hype front, "Melrose" producer Darren Star is replaying scene by scene the script written by "Roseanne" producers.

One month before the air date, Star let it be known that he had filmed a scene showing Matt Fielding kissing another man. But, Star said, Fox told him that he would not be allowed to air the scene. Fox, for its part, did just what ABC did. When the press came calling, it said, "No comment." And then, it refused to allow critics to preview the episode, so that viewers would have to tune in to see if the scene would be shown. Star denies that it's a ratings ploy.

"The intention isn't just to have this character kissing guys on screen. That's not groundbreaking. I saw that on PBS," Star told the show-business trade publication Variety, referring to "Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City," which aired in January on PBS. "The letters we get from straight and gay viewers are overwhelmingly that we should let this guy have a real life."

"What's important is that he's part of the ensemble cast, a gay man who has a pretty well-rounded life. If that's all we're able to do, we've done a lot. I'd just like to be able to do a little more," Star added.

You can question Star's motives, but you can't ignore what he says about reader mail and the depiction of Fielding's life. The character has clearly become a focal point for feelings in society about how gays are depicted on TV.

Donald Suggs, director of public information for the national Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), says the history of gay representation on prime-time TV "has basically been characters brought in only to illustrate the anxiety that heterosexuals feel about gays and lesbians. You know, everyone's freaking out because someone's gay." As a result, viewers see gays only in terms of sexuality, not as rounded people or "people like themselves," Suggs says.

"Which means you wind up in a situation like 'Melrose Place,' where the character can get beaten up [because he's gay], but he can't have a boyfriend. . . . In that regard, letting him kiss would definitely be taking a big step in the right direction."

It would be a step toward gay characters becoming "regular" members of our extended families of prime-time TV characters.

Sandra Crawford, editor of TV, etc., publisher L. Brent Bozell's conservative review of the entertainment industry, agrees that gays' kissing on TV is a big step.

"This is definitely another frontier [for Hollywood] to cross," she says.

But, not surprisingly, she does not see it in the same potentially positive light that Suggs does. She says episodes such as "The Kiss" are the result of "innate liberal tendencies" in Hollywood to make gay life seem more widely accepted than it is.

All this debate, and we don't even know for sure whether "the kiss" will be shown tonight.

We do, however, have some indication. Information has become available that suggests that Fox could have it both ways tonight. If you don't like endings being given away, you'd better stop reading now.

There is a "bulletin board" on the Internet computer system where "Melrose Place" fans share information. And, according to satellite dish owners in Canada who appear to have picked up a transmission of tonight's show from Fox to Canadian affiliates, Fielding and his friend sort of kiss at the end tonight's episode. The camera shows their lips moving together, but cuts away before they actually touch.

If that's what actually airs tonight on Fox, get ready for another round of debates on whether Fox advanced or set back the depictions of gay life on TV with "Son of The Kiss."

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