Wednesday 17th December 2014,
Televisual

Why Has Showtime Abandoned Gays? (Death of the “Gay Show,” Part II)

Aymar Jean Christian January 19, 2010 uncategorized 8 Comments

This essay was originally published at SpliceToday: comment there!

UPDATE 12/13/10: With gay characters on Tara and Jackie, the premiere of The Real L Word and the new show Shameless, it appears Showtime has re-committed to showing and spotlighting gay characters.

UPDATE 3/23/10: On last night’s premieres of Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara, Showtime showed a bit more gay: Marshall, Tara’s gay son, started dealing with politics at school; on Jackie, the narrative suggests Thor, the other, uglier gay, might take Momo’s place as “gay best friend.” Signs of change or too little too late?

I’m continuing my discussion of the state of gay representations on television with a look at Showtime’s evolution in original programming.

We only need to look at Haaz Sleiman, television’s hottest gay character, who is on the job hunt, cast off Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, to see what has happened to the network.

Showtime once was the gay network. Remember five years ago, during that brief period when it housed the two most sexually explicit gay dramas ever—to this day—on television, Queer as Folk and The L Word? Bravo was also a gay network, with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Logo was starting up, but Showtime was where the action was.

Not anymore. Granted, all networks, broadcast, cable and pay, have since stayed away from exclusively gay shows. Since Will & Grace ended in 2006, an exclusively gay show has not materialized. (W&G producers were working on a similar show, but it too hasn’t been seen). Noah’s Arc, Queer as Folk, The L Word, Queer Eye and numerous other series were cancelled and replaced by shows with side gay storylines. Once studios realized they could get a gay audience by writing in just one or two marginal characters, they stopped taking the risk.

Still, Showtime deserves to be chastised for its blatant de-gaying. Unlike ad-supported networks, Showtime relied heavily on subscription rates from gays, taking advantage of their loyalty and gleefully taking their dollars. It’s easy to forget that when Showtime briefly outdid HBO—after the end of The Sopranos—their rise directly resulted from their gay hits, which put them on the media’s radar, something the other pay-cable network, Starz, has not yet been able to do.

“So far, Showtime’s biggest series hits have been Queer as Folk and The L Word, two shows about homosexual lifestyles,” the New York Times wrote in 2005.

But, according to the Times, Viacom started to worry the network had become too gay, presumably to the detriment of straight subscribers. So within the next couple years, after canceling QAF and TLW, they sexed up Weeds and its star Mary Louise Parker—advertisements showed her skimpily dressed alongside British import Secret Diary of a Call Girl—and introduced the uber-macho series, The Tudors (I’m a fan of all three series, by the way). Hot girls and butch guys, yay!

Weeds‘ side gay characters either ended up dead (the two detectives) or increasingly irrelevant (Sanjay). The Tudors killed off its gay characters (including Touch of Pink‘s Kristen Holden-Riedin) in season one, and its subsequent storyline, of a “down low” nature, similarly and swiftly ended in tragedy.

The L Word was supposed to be followed by a lesbian prison drama, The Farm, scripted by creator Ilene Chaiken and starring Leisha Hailey, who played the bisexual Alice Pieszecki on the series. Well, Showtime didn’t buy that. Instead the network opted for a much cheaper reality show, The Real L Word, reportedly coming out this year. (UPDATE: A trailer for The Real L Word is out. The program premieres June 20).

Of course, many (most) pilots never see the light of day. Filthy Gorgeous, starring Isabella Rossellini, was a promising, if flawed, series about an elite escort service with some explicitly gay content that never went anywhere. Paris Barclay, a prominent gay director and producer, developed a series about a hate crimes unit called Hate, which also was dead on arrival, despite seeming excitement from Showtime’s openly gay president, Robert Greenblatt.

As for Haaz Sleiman and his character Momo, Showtime says the series simply couldn’t find room for him. Nurse Jackie-star Edie Falco’s “best friend” on the show, originally Momo, became Eve Best’s sassy Dr. O’Hara, leaving no room for the hot gay best friend. This is partly true. In reality, Sleiman wasn’t given much of a shot. Viewers barely knew about Momo’s private life; his alleged boyfriend never showed up at the hospital and his character was bland. One gay character still remains on the show: an almost-stereotype (he’s swishy but not hot) who appears every other episode to say something bitchy or roll his eyes. Progressive.

The issue is there was once a time when Showtime was doing what other networks wouldn’t dare: showing gay and lesbian characters in as explicit emotional and sexual detail as allowable for television. Now, it resorts to riffing off HBO shows: historical dramas (Rome vs. Tudors), dude comedies (Entourage vs. Californification or La La Land), violent existential drama (Sopranos vs. Dexter or Tudors), quirky sitcoms from out-of-work Friends alums (Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback vs. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes), etc. To be sure, the network deserves applause for its series with great leading roles for women, and I still enjoy many of its shows.

But its virtual abandonment of the gay audience, though representative of larger trends, is disappointing, marking its fall from cutting edge to, once again, fighting for relevance with a resurgent HBO.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

8 Comments

  1. Miggy January 20, 2010 at 3:51 am

    Hey,

    I’ve read both your posts on this subject and I think they’re incredibly well done.

    The one question I was left with, and looking for your feedback on/ some enlightenment, is this: What does a show that “[has] gay characters as leads, but on shows about other things (other than their sexuality)” look like? Is it possible to have a show with a gay lead (as opposed to a bisexual lead) without making the lead’s sexuality a big issue in the show?

  2. Aymar Jean Christian January 20, 2010 at 4:54 am

    Good question! I think a show like HawthoRNe provides a good example, a show that’s essentially a genre series (medical drama), but with a lead that’s a little “different.” Sci-fi is good at this, and I could imagine a doctor or lawyer show with a gay lead. Each episode would focus on a medical or legal problem, and the lead “just happens to be gay.” Of course sexuality would — and should! — come up, but the point is that you would identify with the character for other reasons (they’re empathetic, good at their jobs, fight for the little guy, etc.), like with Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife or Jill Scott in No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency: both shows address issues specific to their respective gender/race/class categories, but the show expands the story by fleshing them out as full characters.

  3. notesofasexiststayathomefather January 21, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    LESBIAN DOUBLE STANDARD: This week we had in-laws over for dinner. Inspired by Chuck we made our own pizzas, including a goat cheese, roasted butternut squash, arugula, olive oil pie…yum! yum! Anyway, over dinner conversation my wife was telling Grandma & Grandpa about how we got a free subscription to Showtime, and that we’re recording ‘The L Word‘, a drama about lesbians. My wife observed: “How come we hear about women who are sick of men and start dating other women? But we never hear a man say, ‘I’m sick of women! I think I’ll start dating men!’”

  4. Aymar Jean Christian March 4, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    True!

  5. siddrick March 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    God Bless You

  6. Markus December 28, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Very interesting posts. As a young, gay man in Germany I have profited a lot from seeing the explicit series “Queer as Folk”. I wonder in general what the gay community can do to make it more interesting for networks (or producers) to make gay shows (movies).

    At the end of the day it simply has to be financially interesting. It would e.g. be good if people buy the DVDs instead of just watching the shows on youtube. The more money they make, the more likely they will be to produce new show…

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