TV's new gay clichés
''Modern Family'''s repressed Mitch and shrieky Cam may be beloved, but they're hardly a realistic couple. Sadly, as two new shows attest, sitcoms have strange ideas about gay relationships.
Barack Obama, Ann Romney, Emmy voters, and nice people of all persuasions, you may want to skip the next paragraph, because I’m about to do something borderline illegal: I’m going to hate on Modern Family. Worse, I’m going to hate on Mitch and Cam, America’s Favorite Gays Who Are Not Neil Patrick Harris.
I’m kidding, mostly. I don’t hate them. I like the actors, and I’m happy to see same-sex couples on TV anywhere short of America’s Most Wanted. But I can’t be the only gay guy who wonders, at the end of every episode, why they’re together. Because Mitch is Gay TV Archetype No. 1 — responsible but repressed, fussy, and trapped in a permanent state of exasperation. And Cam is Gay TV Archetype No. 2 — an OMG! Adorbs! Ka-WEEEEN! who’s compelled to express every feeling he experiences on the scale of a Broadway musical; he’s a giant arrested child with no sense of emotional proportion. Really, they’re a couple? I watch them and flinch. I don’t get it.
Mostly, though, I blame Modern Family for something that isn’t its fault: Two new sitcoms, Partners and The New Normal, have taken the Mitch-and-Cam template and — to swipe 2012’s most overused political phrase — doubled down on it. On The New Normal, about two gay men and the surrogate who’s having their baby, the ”straight-acting” one is a low-key gynecologist. But the ”gay-acting” one is a shrill showbiz nitwit who’s obsessed with his appearance and wants a child because baby clothes = FAB! He’s what a doll invented by Bravo would be like. (As if to underscore his cartoonishness, Andrew Rannells has even been styled to look like an early-Pixar rendering of a person.) He is, however, not a sociopath, unlike the self-absorbed preener Michael Urie plays on Partners, who, in the pilot, ignores his (I assume long-suffering) nurse boyfriend while nearly destroying the romantic relationship of his straight business partner/best pal because … well, that’s unclear. Is he a busybody or a demented narcissist? Either way, who’d want to waste his time on a man-baby who requires two infinitely patient minders, a gay one at home and a straight one at work?
On both series, the redeeming lovability of these men is simply announced, never demonstrated. Rannells and Urie, both champion comic actors, do their best to sell it, playing the pair of twos they’ve each been dealt as if they’re holding royal flushes in a celebrity poker final. They deserve something better than material that isn’t new and isn’t normal. The idea that in gay relationships one guy is the superego and one the impulsive id is retro and creepy, a theory out of discredited psychology or ”provocative” 1950s Off Broadway theater. Besides, we’ve been here before, and better. When Will & Grace debuted in 1998, the mere existence of two gay characters on one show was fresh, and the contrast between Will and Jack was, at its best, transgressive. Keeping Will a bit neutered let the writers go to town with the finger-snapping, lusty, bitchy Jack, who embodied the notion that we’d finally moved far enough past stereotypes to wink at them a little.
But there’s a fine line between playing with clichés and clinging to them. Whatever my issues with Mitch and Cam, they’re granted the same dimensionality as Modern Family‘s other characters. They’re human — that’s the real ”new normal.” To see it done right, just check out Julie White’s character on the Matthew Perry sitcom Go On; she’s a wry, smart, middle-aged lesbian whose orientation is matter-of-factly woven into the scripts without being the only reason she’s there. Low to middling ratings could imperil The New Normal and Partners, but if they fail, it won’t be because people aren’t ready for real gay characters, but because they are. Comedies that give gay men the spotlight only to turn them into shrieking caricatures are not, it turns out, adorbs.