TV matures in depiction of sexuality

Gay characters now explored with more care

If “Dynasty’s” Steven Carrington were to be brought back to life as a character on, say, “Brothers and Sisters,” we wouldn’t even recognize him. Gone would be the depressed mope who had an ashamed father and confusing affairs with crazy women and innocuous boyfriends who never lasted long (daddy killed one, another was murdered at a wedding). No, the Steven Carrington 2009 model, between lobbing zingers at his rowdy siblings during their mother’s weekly dinners, would be planning his commitment ceremony to his lover and fending off his supportive family’s overinvolvement in taking part in his big day.

What a difference a few decades make.

Between the appearance of the first gay character on American television in a forgotten 1972 sitcom called “The Corner Bar” (the late Vincent Schiavelli played a flamboyant set designer) to the first time a gay character served as a series topliner (“Will & Grace”), it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“I do think there’s been a journey over the last 20 years with the depiction of gay characters,” says Silvio Horta, executive producer-writer of ABC’s “Ugly Betty.” “At first, if they were shown at all, they were often on a sort of predatory level, and later they were very asexual. I mean, remember Matt on ‘Melrose Place’? That was a really wild show, but the gay guy was just a Ken doll, the blandest character on the show. I think there was a period of so much p.c. that the gay characters had no depth whatsoever. But now we actually have TV characters that are gay, but it’s not what defines them — it’s just part of them.”

Actor Ron Rifkin, whose character of Saul was not revealed as gay until “Brothers and Sisters” entered its second season, points to the modern reaction of his coming out. “None of the other characters went ‘Ewww’ or thought it was horrible at all,” he notes. “One of the great things about our show is that all the characters celebrate their sexuality — you know, they’re all horny.”

Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning writer of “American Beauty” and showrunner of HBO’s “True Blood,” thinks great strides have been made. “Look at a show like ‘Brothers and Sisters.’ Two of their characters are a gay married couple, which would not have existed on TV 10 years ago,” he says. “And ‘As the World Turns’ now has a gay couple on, and that’s great, but I remember years ago that they had a gay character who worked in a yacht club but you never even saw him take his shirt off or anything. Other characters on the show did, but not him. It was so unrealistic back then.”

The coupling of the aforementioned “ATWT’s” Luke and Noah (fans have dubbed them “Nuke”) has proved to be one for the daytime soap record books, right up there with Luke and Laura. While theirs was the first gay male teen kiss ever to be shown on daytime TV, the show has gotten some criticism that their romantic scenes have been more tame than those of the straight couples.

Exec producer Chris Goutman pooh-poohs that criticism. “We rarely venture into the land of sappy lovemaking outfitted with lighted candles, chocolate strawberries, corny music and predictable choreography,” he says. “I subscribe to the philosophy that it’s more powerful to leave it to the imagination of the audience.”

While gay-bi audiences are appreciative and supportive of such diverse storylines, what the industry has discovered is that straight audiences are equally responsive. “ATWT” certainly bears that out, as does BBC’s “Torchwood,” a sci-fi series with an international cult audience seen on BBC America stateside. Its leading man, 51st-century time-traveling rogue Captain Jack, has been shown in several steamy man-on-man clinches, although his sexuality is up for grabs. “He doesn’t care if it’s a man, a woman or an alien — if he’s attracted to it, he’ll sleep with it,” actor John Barrowman says of his role. “And the interesting thing about what’s happened with ‘Torchwood’ is that my main audience is not actually men. It’s women — women from 25 all the way up to grandmothers! What does that say about my being out? It tells me that it hasn’t made a difference in my career.”

For Jennifer Beals, the actress who starred in Showtime’s recently shuttered lesbian drama “The L Word,” playing gay may have been the best thing to happen to her career. “I’m getting fantastic offers right now, better than before I did the series,” she says. To wit: Beals is currently shooting the Hughes brothers’ highly anticipated thriller “The Book of Eli” opposite Denzel Washington.

The actress, like many interviewed for this article, says that having gay writers working on the scripts involving gay storylines is something she prefers (“As a straight actress, maybe that’s my own insecurity”).

Rifkin says gay writers’ involvement is a must. “Without a doubt, because they live in a world we don’t live in, and there are always codes and secrets in any world,” he says. “Jews, Muslims, people in the green movement — they all have secrets and codes that are part of their world. This is no different.”

Ball, on the other hand, scoffs at the notion: “No, I think it’s best for gay characters to be written by good writers.”

“A lot of our writers are middle-aged, straight white guys,” says Horta, laughing. “So is it a necessity to have gay writers working on gay storylines? No. Helpful? Yes.”

While the depiction, let alone the actual inclusion, of gay characters on series TV has progressed in the years since Steven Carrington’s sexual dithering, Barrowman believes it’s a tad early to declare victory. “The fact that they’re putting gay characters on TV who aren’t stereotypes — like on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘Brothers and Sisters’ — is a move forward,” he says. “But it’s still up to us to let the industry know if they’re getting those characters and their storylines right.”