The Winter of Our Discontent Gave Us Steamy TV Content
Wherever you’ve spent this passing winter, you probably have been less than thrilled by the weather with its record-breaking snowstorms, numbing temperatures and escapades on ice. Even in Florida, we experienced too many cold waves between brief periods of unprecedented high temps. (Yup, that’s the way it is with climate change—extreme.) But for all of us stuck inside the house, this winter was much warmer than average when it comes to quality television drama and steamy queer roles, especially male ones.
Good-old-fashioned network TV provided us two of the best new drama series in memory, and both featured gay characters that already make me yearn for the next cold-weather season when I can see more of them.
The first to premiere was How to Get Away with Murder (ABC), in which law professor Annalise Keating, played with shiver-inducing nuance by Viola Davis, leads her brightest students through weekly legal cases, all of which are overshadowed by a chilling murder that ultimately involves and engulfs all of them. Among the key students is Connor Walsh, a sexy smartass who gets to the bottom of a case by engaging in random physical acts with other guys.
As Connor, 26-year-old Jack Falahee is just plain perfect. He’s irreverent and seemingly self-assured, until he loses control of his own legal situation. And until he falls for Oliver, a mild-mannered I.T. geek with whom Connor initially barters sex for computer hacking. The role of Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) has grown significantly, and the season ended with [spoiler alert] a surprise when they both were tested for HIV. Everyone (including the characters) thought ultra-promiscuous Connor would more likely test positive, but rather it was the seemingly cautious Oliver who did.
Both Connor and Oliver are multi-dimensional characters, flawed yet endearing, without a hint of traditional stereotypes in either of them. In fact, loud-and-proud Connor’s blunt portrayal of gay sexuality has been much more direct and visual than any American network show has dared present before. Remember a few years ago how groundbreaking it was for Kurt and Blaine to kiss on Glee? Well, if you haven’t seen Murder, you’re in for a shock. Or two. Or more….
The gay characters are certainly not the only reason to love Murder. Davis is brilliant (and has already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors trophies for her performance). As imperfect as her students, Annalise is cockily confident in class and in the courtroom yet frightfully vulnerable in her personal life. An episode late in the season in which she and her mother (Cicely Tyson, in her best role in years) do battle in a blame game over Annalise’s childhood rape is as profound—and brilliantly written—as anything I’ve ever seen on the small screen.
Equally powerful is Fox’s Empire, which winds up its first season this month. Again, a gay character, up-and-coming singer Jamal Lyon, as played by 31-year-old Jussie Smollett, has a key role. It’s not easy to stand out in a soap-opera styled melodrama that co-creator Lee Daniels has likened to the classic series Dynasty. The entire cast is over-the-top terrific, led by Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, recording star turned boss of a highly successful family-owned record label, and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie, the wonderfully feisty mother of his three sons who went to prison for 17 years to protect her man and now demands her just due.
From the earliest episodes, Jamal, the middle son, has stood out. For one thing Smollett is quite a looker. For another, there is a soothing quality to his performances that instills a sense of calm into the chaos surrounding him. Most important, Smollett is a smooth, sexy singer (who just signed a solo recording contract in real life). Everything Jamal sings has become an iTunes hit from “Keep Your Money” to “You’re So Beautiful” (songs produced by Empire’s executive music director Timbaland).
“You’re So Beautiful” is the number Jamal sang as he publicly came out of the closet, to his father’s chagrin, at a big music industry party in an episode last month. His coming out was long overdue, though his father always knew he was gay and once threw Jamal in a garbage can for prancing in high heels as a toddler—a disturbing scene in the first episode. Cookie always tried to protect Jamal, who never hid his live-in boyfriend from his family but feared going public about his sexual orientation because homophobic Lucious threatened to destroy his singing career were he to reveal his orientation. Jamal even lost his sweet longtime boyfriend Michael a few weeks ago because Jamal was such a closet case.
Finally, prompted by his hot new boyfriend, out filmmaker Ryan (played by Eka Darville), Jamal slammed his way out of the closet singing his dad’s favorite song—and of course the music industry was as delighted as when Sam Smith acknowledged the obvious. Even Lucious seems to be warming to his son as the show’s season comes to a close.
While much of the plotline to Empire is either humorously hyperbolic or grim (Lucious is a murderous antihero as well as a doting family man), Jamal’s story rings true and sets just the right tone. As played by Smollett, Jamal is well adjusted outside of his nuclear family, but it is important to him to be respected and loved by his parents and siblings. The challenges Jamal has faced and the music he has served up have made watching Empire an absolute delight.
It’s interesting to note that, despite the outright out-ness of the characters they play, both Jack Fallahee of Murder and Jussie Smollett of Empire have been vague in talking about their own sexual orientation. Each man is active in gay rights causes, but Fallahee has said his private life is irrelevant and he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a binary. Smullett had told interviewers in the past, “If anyone is looking to put me in a box, then that’s not going to happen. But if you really want to know about me, just watch, because I don’t hide anything.” Then, a few days ago, he expounded on his equivocal position telling Ellen DeGeneres that, “There’s never been a closet” in his life.
Both men have tried to say that an actor’s personal life is irrelevant to the roles they play—but I’d argue that when a popular actor is open about his orientation it can be of considerable help to struggling young people in the closet.
While it may not seem as groundbreaking anymore, the long-running musical comedy series Glee is nearing the end of its final season, and a high note this winter was the dual wedding in an Indiana barn of Kurt and Blaine and Brittany and Santana, who talked the boys into finally tying the knot just before their own ceremony. Their marriage episode was heartwarming, as has been this season’s return of Coach Beiste as a transgender male. We’ve even seen a few tender moments from sinister Principal Sue Sylvester.
Although I know Glee has run its course, and the kids are almost old enough to go directly from high school to assisted living, I’ll miss the show. Thanks, Ryan Murphy, for giving us what truly has been the gayest show ever—one that has represented the entirety of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I think you’ve taught a little love and respect to the rest of America along the way.