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How Premium Cable Led the Charge for Realistic Gay Characters

If cultural progress for gay rights has tilted toward mainstreaming of characters via network television — with gradual acceptance reflected by a surplus of gay best friends, usually devoid of any onscreen love lives — pay cable emerged as the arena where gays could go for honest and open depictions of their experiences.

HBO, not surprisingly, was a trailblazer in this area, both in the movie and documentary arena. “And the Band Played On,” in 1993, explored the sad history of indifference toward AIDS, becoming the first prong of what amounted to a trilogy, each spaced by roughly a decade: “Angels in America” in 2003, and “The Normal Heart” last year. Many of the best pay-TV movies devoted to the topic were true stories, telling tales of pain and tragedy, a la Showtime’s “Soldier’s Girl.”

The most memorable series — a form where the audience has more time to bond with characters — generally arrived only this century, and came in a fairly rapid flurry: “Six Feet Under,” which featured a gay wedding involving David Fisher (played by Michael C. Hall) in its 2005 finale; Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” and later “The L Word,” which, as GLAAD noted in a 2012 analysis, weren’t really marketed broadly, but which crossed over and exhibited unexpected appeal among younger straight viewers (predominantly women) as soap operas; and the gay supporting players on “Sex and the City.” Not only were these characters shown as sexual beings, but they usually possessed more depth and nuance than network counterparts. The trend spilled over into basic cable when it began to get serious about scripted dramas, from Ryan Murphy’s “Nip/Tuck” to Sal, the closeted ad agency employee in “Mad Men.”

While pay-TV projects generally attracted smaller audiences, these productions generated a level of prestige that multiplied their cultural footprint. “Angels in America,” for example, won 11 Emmys — a miniseries record later matched by another gay-themed movie, the Liberace biography “Behind the Candelabra,” and shared by the classic “Eleanor and Franklin.” Indeed, it seemed as if the TV Academy was several steps ahead of the public, calling attention to stories that still faced considerable resistance.

Pay channels are neither beholden to advertisers nor wholly dependent on ratings. Their model is frequently described as a “quilt,” with programming, from boxing to documentaries to original series, catering to different constituencies and tastes to keep people subscribing. By that measure, gay themes have been just one patch — and given the tentative history in ad-supported TV, usually a more colorful one.

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