Coming out in the living room, for several decades

Museum screenings show how TV came to recognize gays

Television

April 04, 2004|By Diane Werts | Diane Werts,NEWSDAY

From Will & Grace and Queer as Folk to characters on Dawson's Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and ER, gay images on recent network TV series have kept culture experts busy examining their impact. Few have looked back to long-ago shows for historical forerunners, but the Museum of Television and Radio is doing just that in its current screening series, Not That There's Anything Wrong With That.

It's named after the running Seinfeld joke when Jerry and George are overheard in a coffee-shop conversation by a reporter who mistakenly assumes they're gay, which they endeavor to disprove. ("Not that there's anything wrong with that," they hasten to add.)

That episode is in the 13-week series of screenings changing weekly through June 27 at the museum's Manhattan and Beverly Hills sites.

But that 1993 Seinfeld outing appears far into the chronologically organized exhibition, which surprised even its curator, Barry Monush, by stretching back to the early 1960s. Network series occasionally mentioned "homosexuality" at a time when TV's husbands and wives weren't yet routinely sharing double beds. While exploring the museum's tens of thousands of programs, Monush found "a show I'd never heard of" - Espionage, a 1964 NBC drama referencing a blackmail plot involving a spy. "The enemy lets the word out that he got married late, and he knows someone who purchases antique furniture. It's all coded stuff, and it's unintentionally funny at times, and other times it's fascinating."

ABC's gritty police half-hour NYPD again deals with a blackmail ring, "but you get the feeling that [star detective] Jack Warden is sympathetic to the gay characters," Monush says. And on CBS' Medical Center, when a doctor's research may be shunted aside because he's gay, Chad Everett's lead surgeon offers "a positive response where the hero speaks in his favor."

The current screening package, which started Friday, brings the episode many viewers first recall dealing with the subject. All in the Family showed bigoted Archie Bunker berating Mike's "sensitive" friend in comparison with his "macho" pal (Philip Carey, now on ABC's One Life to Live), only to discover the reverse of his assumptions is true. It's joined by a 1976 M*A*S*H about gay-bashing and a 1977 Maude debate over a gay bar.

But Monush "wanted to make sure we didn't just whitewash everything, so we put together a separate package of two programs actually protested at the time by gay organizations."

Screening April 9-15 are 1970s episodes of Police Woman, with stereotyped lesbian criminals, and Marcus Welby, M.D., where a patient fears he might be gay. "Robert Young's reaction is negative, like `We might be able to cure you.' "

Subsequent weeks spotlight gay teens, AIDS, same-sex kisses and even outer space sexuality, before concluding June 18-27 with such lead-role portrayals as Ellen and Will & Grace.

Monush's comprehensive approach showcases little-known landmarks such as a 1972 ABC sitcom, The Corner Bar, including TV's first gay regular character, and even David Brenner's unaired 1976 beauty salon sitcom Snip - alongside more famous portrayals on thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Frasier and Melrose Place.

"It's interesting to see how much time it took to make progress to a certain degree on the networks. But there's a downside today," Monush says. Cable series like Showtime's Queer as Folk and The L Word (both examined May 24 in a seminar with their creators) deal so explicitly with gay life that Monush says "the networks have sort of leveled off on how far they want to go.

"They will allow Will & Grace to be on the air, but they don't want to take it into anything too controversial. You get the feeling you're watching gay characters in a straight world, where the two shows on Showtime present a gay world with straight people visiting."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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