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The cast of “Looking” poses in their Halloween costumes from the Season 2 episode, “Looking for Gordon Freeman.”
HBO announced this week that it would not renew
for a third season, but would allow for one more special to wrap up the series about gay men in San Francisco. The show had a small group of devoted followers, but has also been panned by many in the gay community for being boring and nonrepresentative, despite having some Latino characters. Arguably, it was serving its purpose of showing the challenges of what somewhat-post-political gay life might look like, where character conflicts arise from “bottom shame,” HIV and PrEP, ageism, monogamy vs. open relationships, and the overall importance of sex in relationships — not from homophobia, bullying, and the fight for marriage equality. If a deep, focused look at the lives of gay white men is no longer of interest to a wide-enough television audience, it may in fact be an indicator that the era of such prominent shows is over — having completed its
‘s cancellation coincides with the recent series finale of
, another show that also emphasized its gay characters from the start, but relied on more traditional coming out stories. Arguably, one of the only other gay-focused shows left is ABC Family’s
, which features a lesbian couple’s family and recently included the youngest same-sex kiss ever shown on television. It too, represents a progression from the more sensationalized
, and perhaps may serve as a similar ending to the smaller lesbian television arc that paralleled shows about gay men.
Otherwise, there really isn’t a show left on network or cable television that is centered around gay characters. But that doesn’t mean the number of gay characters has diminished. According to GLAAD, 3.9 percent of regular characters on scripted primetime shows are LGBT this season, the second highest that number has ever been. White gay male characters, specifically, have become almost ubiquitous, regularly present on shows like
— and often in roles and stories where their sexuality is not the primary focus.
Some shows are still focusing on gay storylines, but with new layers.
, for example, prominently features an African-American gay character, Jamal, one of the first on prime-time TV and one of the only since
. His conflicts regarding the intersection of his race and sexuality are actually fairly novel television stories — as evidenced by audiences’ first reactions to them.
, also features an openly gay African-American man, Titus, who similarly experiences struggles related to the intersection of his identities. The show is rife with jokes about gay stereotypes (though rarely, if ever, at the expense of the gay community), and features some gay storylines without making them the primary theme of the show.
may, in fact, represent the ultimate synthesis of gay storytelling without gay emphasis.
With less demand and/or need to tell gay-specific stories, more room has opened up for characters that are bi or who otherwise challenge the traditional sexual orientation binary. Shows like
all feature characters whose orientation is not clearly gay or straight, though few shows have actually devoted storylines to the unique experiences of bi characters. This may be because of a perception that audiences would be less accepting of character orientations that don’t fit a particular mold.
, as an example, has long featured characters like Captain Jack Harkness and River Song who identify as pansexual, but an interspecies lesbian kiss this last season sparked controversy among British audiences.
While the demand for shows about characters struggling because of same-sex orientation seems to have diminished, transgender stories are exploding. Laverne Cox’s role on
are the most visible examples, but they are just the tip of a burgeoning iceberg. Creators of another new trans-focused show,
, are currently shopping a pilot of the series to networks and distributors in hopes of finding a home for it. Three new transgender reality shows are also in the works, TLC’s
. This surge of visibility is introducing vast new audiences to transgender people much in the same way shows like
did with gay people decades ago — with lessons learned in terms of positive representation.
This shift in what kind of population visibility to emphasize and how to emphasize it has not completely erased gay-focused television.
was just renewed for an eighth season, and other productions are blossoming online. Independent projects like
are producing smaller shows for smaller audiences that still tell entertaining and compelling stories focused on gay men. With visibility of gay men nearing ubiquity on television, stories specifically about their lives are becoming more of a niche, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
star Jonathan Groff recalled that when the show premiered, HBO’s President of Programming, Michael Lombardo, said that he had really been inspired by the completeness of Michael C. Hall’s gay character on
. Since then, he’d been wanting to “make a show about gay people where they weren’t tragic figures and they weren’t the comedic relief, and they weren’t sexually sensationalized but they were human beings.” Perhaps the lesson of
isn’t that such stories don’t need to be told, but that when gay men aren’t portrayed as tragic, comical, or oversexualized, there isn’t a lot gained by isolating them from a more diverse cast of characters.
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