The way a character comes out on TV has the potential to make or break a show.
Jim Mitchell

13 Dec 2017 - 4:11 PM  UPDATED 21 Dec 2017 - 10:13 AM

In this week’s episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (the shows 100th), Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) comes out to her colleagues as bisexual. They’re curious but completely unfazed, much to the amazement of Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher).

“I must say this is going considerably better than when I came out to my colleagues,” he says. “They were not, as the kids say, awake.” (He means “woke” but the word is “grammatically incoherent”).

This empathetic treatment of a coming out story harks back to another classic cop comedy, Barney Miller, one of the first sitcoms to show an onscreen coming out. In the 1979 episode "Inquisition", someone has written an anonymous letter threatening to reveal that one of the cops is gay, sparking an investigation. But when Officer Zitelli (Dino Natali) tells Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) it’s him, Miller offers the concerned cop his discretion, deciding not to tell the investigating officer. The show won praise for its respectful handling of the issue.

HuffPost contributor Brian Cronin says Barney Miller was “light years ahead of most sitcoms of the era (or even a decade later)” in its handling of gay characters.

“This is because Captain Barney Miller was always empathetic with the people around him. He did not always understand where the other person was coming from, but he was able to see past that and be sensitive to their feelings and beliefs.”

But TV creators can run into strife with realistic coming out stories. Twenty years ago, Ellen DeGeneres infamously came out, as did her sitcom character, lovable bookstore proprietor Ellen Morgan, in Ellen. Yet, if ABC studio executives had it their way, the storyline would never have happened. The 1997 episode’s title, "The Puppy Episode", was a cheeky reference to their opposition.

“The writers told the executives that they wanted me to come out, because my character needed to be in a relationship after four years of not being in a relationship,” recalled DeGeneres recently. “Someone at the studio said, ‘Well, get her a puppy; she’s not coming out.’”

But the writers didn’t, and Ellen did. In the much anticipated one-hour, two-part season four episode, the show mirrored DeGeneres’s real-life anxiety at coming out. A whopping 44 million viewers tuned in (almost three times the show’s usual viewership), the episode scored an Emmy and it was widely seen as paving the way for greater representation of LGBTQI characters on TV.

“Ellen was so loved by audiences; she was so much the girl next door and so sweet,” says season four executive producer Mark Driscoll. “She was the perfect person to dispel people’s fears about what a gay woman might be like.”

But the backlash to the character’s outing was ultimately the demise of the show – it was cancelled one year later. Executive producer Dava Savel believes that audiences couldn’t handle the girl next door becoming “the lesbian next door”. Adds Driscoll, “I think the show kind of became about a woman being gay, instead of a woman who happened to be gay,” he says. “Eventually, people just turned away from it.”

Three years earlier, another TV sitcom ground-breaker in the portrayal of LGBTQI characters, Roseanne, also faced blowback from network ABC for a scene featuring two women locking lips. In the season six episode "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell", the straight Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) experiences a passionate kiss with gay stripper Sharon (Mariel Hemingway).

It was all very discreet, showing no lip-to-lip contact and lasted some five seconds. The point was that it showed Roseanne’s surprise at experiencing an unexpected moment of intimacy with a woman. President of Capital Cities/ABC Multimedia Group Steve A Weiswasser vowed the scene would never go to air.

“He told me that kids who watch the kiss think it will be OK for people of the same sex to kiss each other," Barr’s former husband and an executive producer on the show, Tom Arnold, said at the time. But, according to Arnold, there was no objection from network executives about the episode’s references to pierced nipples and vibrators.

Despite rumblings that it was all a ratings stunt, Barr told HuffPost Live in 2015 that she had a poignant reason for including the scene. Ironically, given Weiswasser’s objections, the episode was about homophobia.

"My brother and sister are both gay,” she said. “I just got tired of hearing bulls*** about it, so I wanted to do [this episode].”

Barr and Arnold stuck to their guns, and the episode eventually aired – albeit with a parental advisory warning. ABC reported it received around 100 calls about the show, but the majority were positive.

"Most of the calls we got from viewers found the show funny and wondered what all the fuss was about," ABC director of media relations Stephen Battaglio said at the time. "The reaction showed that Roseanne has a loyal audience that has accepted the fact that the show will take on controversial subjects."

But lesbian comedian Suzanne Westenhoeser was less than impressed with how Roseanne handled the gay kiss.

"It makes us look predatory," she said. "There's a bar full of lesbian women, but yet Mariel Hemingway goes for the only straight woman in the place. I don't get it."

Fast forward to 2017, and people are still frothing at the mouth over same-sex kisses. It seems the intimacy of the act is still too much for some. That was the case when a recent episode of Fox series The Exorcist featured a kiss involving ex-priest Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) in an all-too-rare example of TV depicting same-sex intimacy between older characters. Where Keane’s bisexuality had only been hinted at to date, this was the definitive confirmation.

The show’s creator and executive producer, Jeremy Slater, has a blunt message for any “homophobes” unhappy with the scene.

“I saw a couple of homophobes on Twitter and my response is, ‘Good, f*** you. I’m glad you didn’t like it, I’m glad it ruined the show for you. You shouldn’t have good things in your life,'” he tells Sci-Fi Bulletin.

“This is 2017 and we still have people throwing temper tantrums online because they don’t want to see gay characters. I think it’s the last gasp of a certain breed of dinosaur that’s on the way out, and let them kick and scream as they go.”

Other TV creators are also fiercely unapologetic about exploring fluid sexuality and coming out stories on their shows. “At the end of the day, I write the stories I want to tell,” Daniel Levy, co-creator of sitcom Schitt’s Creek tells The Kit.  “I really don’t care about people who aren’t on board with queer stories, because if you’re not going to like that, then I don’t want anything to do with you.”

In the show, created with his father, legendary comic actor Eugene Levy (American Pie, Best in Show), the younger Levy, who is gay, plays pansexual David Rose. It’s one of the first times the sexuality has been portrayed on a TV series, and when it was revealed, it was cleverly handled with comic aplomb. “I like a wine and not the label,” explains a deadpan David to his friend and one-time fling, Stevie (Emily Hampshire). “I like red wine, but I also like white, and sometimes a nice rosé.”

But when a beloved LGBTQI character is mistreated, TV creators should brace themselves for a lambasting from fans, as The 100 creator Jason Rothenberg found out last year. He had killed off central character Lexa (played by Australian actress Alycia Debnam-Carey, who was leaving the show to concentrate on role in Fear the Walking Dead), a powerful leader in the post-apocalyptic-set world and a lesbian. Lexa had just consummated her relationship with Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and was killed by a stray bullet.

Fans and critics objected to the manner of the death, viewing it as yet another example of the "Bury Your Gays" trope where LGBTQI characters are unceremoniously and cruelly killed off. In an open letter to fans, Rothenberg admitted he got it wrong.

“The thinking behind having the ultimate tragedy follow the ultimate joy was to heighten the drama and underscore the universal fragility of life,” he wrote. “But the end result became something else entirely  – the perpetuation of the disturbing ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope.

“Knowing everything I know now, Lexa’s death would have played out differently. Despite my reasons, I still write and produce television for the real world where negative and hurtful tropes exist. And I am very sorry for not recognising this as fully as I should have.”

Creators of TV, everywhere should take heed of Rothenberg’s sobering lesson.


Watch a double episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine from 8 pm, Wednesday 13 December.  

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