Toronto
3 min

Labels, not action

'I'm gay' is nothing but a punch line

Have you ever noticed how often gay characters on TV are identified by words rather than actions?



Instead of having a same-sex lover, for example, they’re usually given an Easy Homo Make label. The identification is usually couched in the form of a joke or cultural stereotype, something along the lines of, “You can’t do that. You’re gay!”



But the labelling always stands out because it’s so arbitrary. There’s nothing to support it. The character wouldn’t be gay if he or she weren’t attached via a lexicographical umbilical cord to that single, sustaining word: “gay.”



This isn’t necessary in real life. I can’t remember the last time I felt obliged to state the obvious about myself. Once you’ve named your favourite bars, hang-outs and friends, people generally put two and two together.



But in TV-land it is necessary, because otherwise the queer characters are too bland to live.



Going into this season, it looked like it was going to be one of the gayest ever. Not only was Will And Grace’s titular gay character threatening to date, but there were major new shows from gay screenwriters Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek) and Alan Ball (American Beauty).



Those two gents created Wasteland (just cancelled by ABC) and Oh Grow Up (9:30pm, Wed, CTV) respectively. As it turns out, however, the only thing gay writers do even better than their straight counterparts is coital restraint. Looking for a reason to stop your characters from having sex? Check out Wasteland and Oh Grow Up where the gay characters, Russell, a soap opera star, and Ford, a newly divorced lawyer, are both just coming out of the closet, very slowly and very timidly.



They try to date but of course it doesn’t work. Russell (Dan Montgomery) is turned down by an ex-trick who has the three-second label game down pat. “You’ve obviously mistaken me for a closeted, dysfunctional, socially unenlightened, non-committal, confused, unevolved homosexual,” says the date. As rejection slips go, that’s terribly articulate but also just plain unbelievable.



A few episodes later Russell tries again, but somehow manages to end up with the only cute blond actor-waiter in New York who’s straight. Not that he notices right away. It takes a double date and much humiliation before the truth dawns.



In the real world, of course, a three-second exchange of glances would have prevented the mix-up. Tales of mixed identity are only possible in a world where “gay” and “straight” are labels and not lived realities.



Ford (John Ducey) on Oh Grow Up has even less of a life. When a straight buddy drags him to a gay bar it’s the straight guy who discovers his butch Italian-American boss is gay. And it’s the straight guy who enters a Mr Construction Worker contest.



Ford suffers from the same facile characterization as the gay characters in Ball’s other work. In American Beauty, the gay guys were either bland, yuppie gym queens or homicidal maniacs. On Oh Grow Up, our queer representative is a timid, closeted nerd given to obsessing about paper clips and web cams.



Unable to have a complete life, gay characters are left to play with the thin outer shell of identity. In one scene, Ford parodies his own thin characterization by announcing that he’s come to audition for the role of “the supportive gay neighbour with the heart of gold.”



Action, the erratic but hilariously acerbic satire of Hollywood power games (9:30pm, Thu, Fox), takes the name game one step further. When a straight producer wants to keep a gay action star in the closet, he calls himself gay, only to find that sexual names entail sexual obligations. To his horror, however, he enjoys the experience, which proves, I suppose, that names are very much skin deep.



(Action supposedly returns Thu, Dec 2. No word on if or when the other Oh Grow Up will receive return engagements.)



On a brighter note, TVO celebrates one of TV’s true originals with A Spinster Of The Parish Of Westminster (7pm, Wed, Dec 15). A profile of Jennifer Paterson, the older, darker half of Two Fat Ladies, who died last August at the age of 71, it includes interviews, archival footage and out-takes from Two Fat Ladies.



No preview tapes were available, but Paterson’s madcap life should provide plenty of juicy material. As a matron at an English girls’ school, she prescribed gin as a cure for menstrual pains. Years later she was fired from a prestigious cooking job for hurling dirty dishes out the window. If you’d rather remember her in the quick, check out the classic “Choirboys” episode of Two Fat Ladies, Dec 22.