The thing you are most likely to read about the new season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is what it does wrong in terms of diversity and representation. Leaving that aside for a moment, it’s also very possible to discuss what the show does extremely well in its latest batch of episodes. While Kimmy’s story was the most dramatic focus of season two, her roommate, the glorious Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), quietly went through his own metamorphosis.
(Minor spoilers ahead.)
Titus, a flamboyant actor and performer and black gay man, is a decidedly unfashionable gay male character on TV these days. His theatricality is the kind too often dismissed as stereotype simply because it flies in the face of the modern, vaguely assimilationist rhetoric that gay men are just regular guys who happen to like guys. This aligns strongly with the rise of ‘masc’-identifying gays and the conflation of the ability to pass as straight by presenting a non-stereotypical image of gay men, such that it has practically become a stereotype in and of itself.
TV has steadily gotten better at providing an array of gay male representation, let alone the fact that shows are now increasingly looking beyond the ‘LG’ in LGBTQI. By and large, this has been done far better on shows which are either out-and-out comedies or those which lean on comedy as a pillar and foundation. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has premiered right as Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Girls are ending or have ended their most recent seasons. All three shows position their gay characters at very different places in their lives, providing new insights and setting precedents for gay representation on TV.
At the start of Kimmy Schmidt’s second season, we flash back to Titus’ life before he was even Titus. Trapped in Mississippi and engaged to be married to Vonda, he walks out on her at their wedding reception and dons himself with his new name. One of the things the show looks at throughout the season is the fact that Titus doesn’t really know how this new name defines him beyond how fabulous it sounds; his assumption of his new identity, under which he could wield his sexuality strongly and forthrightly, appears to be an act of defiance towards his former self as much as society and anyone else.
The test for Titus comes when he begins dating Mikey (Mike Carlsen), the construction worker from season one who Titus described as a “tasty little Bob the Builder”. Mikey has repressed his sexuality for some years fearing retribution in his stereotypically masculine job. As their relationship progresses, they are each able to ground their sexuality – for Mikey, allowing himself to give in to what expressing his gayness means, and for Titus, letting someone see past his façade of unknowable fierceness to the still-developing person underneath.
There’s no concrete real-world explanation for why some gay men’s behaviour manifests differently, but Kimmy Schmidt shows the strength of its writing in providing smart, character-based reasons for these two characters.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has just begun airing its third season on SBS, takes a different, more mature tack. Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) came to the series with his sexuality as a fully-formed component of his character. Emboldened in the face of discrimination, Holt takes pride in his sexuality, having becomes the first openly gay police captain in New York City.
Holt’s extreme stoicism places him in thorough behavioural opposition to Titus, who in both seasons finds himself needing to pass as straight and struggling. Holt, however, is such a well-developed character with palpable self-confidence in who he is that he struggles to pretend to be other people in the same way. Naturally, the writers exploit this for comedy; but the strength of both shows is that neither mocks the characters for their sexuality.
In season three of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Holt experiences relationship turmoil when his husband moves overseas to teach and the show allows Holt to show the break in his unflappable façade. In both series, characters choose to protect themselves from the way the world chooses to see them in different, equally valid ways.
On Lena Dunham’s divisive Girls, it’s Hannah’s father Tad (Peter Scolari) - who came out as gay last year - who finds himself newly out and outwardly terrified of what it means to come out as gay late in life. It’s the kind of story not often shown on TV, and his crisis has great complications; when he comes to the city to hook up with another man, he panics afterwards because he left his wallet behind in the man’s apartment. Girls is a very different show to Kimmy and Brooklyn Nine-Nine because it’s too caustic to love its characters whole-heartedly; Girls gets mileage from making its characters suffer, which doesn’t make Tad’s experiences less affecting, but it does complicate how the viewer perceives it.
What each show is doing is examining the burden of coming out at different stages in life. These stories are very specific to gay men, but there are more universal, fundamental aspects. In some ways, coming out places us back at square one; it forces us to figure out how we present ourselves publicly, how open we are with other people, and the way this can affect friendships and relationships. That we have three TV shows – just comedies – airing at the same time which are all examining this in different ways goes to show how important representation is, both in terms of getting it right and opening the doors for more of it in future.
You can catch-up on Brooklyn Nine-Nine's third season here at SBS On Demand.