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Premiere of NBC's The New Normal this week raises question: Who gets to be gay on network TV?



the-new-normal-nbc-550x309.jpgNBC's new comedy The New Normal is getting the red carpet treatment this week, debuting last night and tonight after The Voice in a preview aimed at putting Glee creator Ryan Murphy's latest show before as many eyeballs as possible.

But Murphy's Normal, along with CBS' new comedy Partners, also made me wonder: Who gets to be gay on network TV?

Based in part on Murphy's own life, Normal tells the story of a gay couple who decide to have a baby using a bright-eyed blond surrogate looking to start a new life in Los Angeles with her tween daughter.

Unfortunately, she's also trailed by an acerbic, bigoted grandmother -- the always excellent Ellen Barkin -- who calls a lesbian couple "gay peacocks" and has an ugly stereotype ready for just about every non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual person she encounters in the pilot.

newnormal1.jpgIt's obvious from the start that this motley crew -- joined by Real Housewives' sassy NeNe Leakes as the personal assistant to the show's version of Murphy, Andrew Rannels' Bryan -- will become a dysfunctional family of sorts.

But this show also got me thinking about the vision of gay people network TV offers us these days. And too often, it seems that vision is male, upper middle class and white.

CBS' new comedy Partners features Ugly Betty alum Michael Urie as Louis, a partner in an architecture firm -- the typically flamboyant gay male character network TV often offers us -- whose best friend is a much more traditional, grounded heterosexual guy, just like real-life relationship between the show's creators, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan.

modern-family-16934484-300-400.jpgThis parallel, pairing a flamboyant, more stereotypical gay male with a more buttoned down partner, is a trope we've seen often on network TV, most successfully in the gay couple on ABC's hit Modern Family.

Kohan and Mutchnick had the same pairing -- minus the romance -- on their pioneering sitcom Will & Grace, where Sean Hayes' dazzling Jack McFarland was best friends with Eric McCormack's more conservative lawyer Will Truman. But back in 1998, when that show first hit television, it was groundbreaking enough to have two gay characters in a show -- forget about putting them in relationship together.  

So it's worth remembering that characters like those on Modern Family, New Normal and Partners, along with Chris Colfer's glee club star Kurt on Murphy's Glee, have broken lots of important boundaries on network TV.

But they may also have created a bit of straitjacket regarding the biggest roles for gay characters of television, where they are expected to be well-off, male and white, like the men who have created them.

Cool as it is to see talented producers such as Murphy exploring gay relationships on new shows, I also yearn to see other visions of gay life on TV in the 21st Century. Archie Panjabi's bisexual investigator on The Good Wife or Oscar Nunez's gay paper company accountant Oscar Martinez on The Office is a good start. But those characters are supporting players.

The most important thing about success in diversity, is that it makes you want more. So here's hoping network TV finds a way to feature more gay characters who fall outside that marrow mold, so viewers can get used to seeing gay American in all the wonderful ways it presents itself in life offscreen.    


[Last modified: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 10:16am]


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