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TV is Crossing a New Threshold

By Rodger Streitmatter
Media Matters

TV is crossing a new threshold.

Ellen DeGeneres returns to primetime with her new aptly titled The Ellen Show For 25 years now, gay and lesbian characters have been appearing here and there on prime-time television. It all started when Billy Crystal debuted as Jodie Dallas on the ABC sitcom Soap in 1977, playing the gay member of a hilariously troubled family.

Other milestones along the lavender brick road have included Ellen DeGeneres coming out, both on ABC's Ellen and in real life, and Will &Grace enjoying big-time success, in the ratings as well as the race for the Emmys-the NBC comedy hit has been nominated for a stunning 12 awards this year.

But the real news about the television season that begins this month is that, for the first time, the number of gay and lesbian characters on dramas will be larger than the comparable number on sitcoms.

The distinction is a significant one. It means that the networks are seeing gay characters not merely as people to laugh at, but also as multi-dimensional characters with a wide range of emotions and issues-gay people are human!

One of the most exciting moments of the new season will come with the premiere of The Education of Max Bickford, a CBS drama about a college professor going through a midlife crisis. Gay eyes will not be watching the lead characters, played by Academy Award winners Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden, as much as another series regular: Erica, who used to be the title character's best friend, Steve.

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Helen Shaver will play the much-anticipated role, the first transgender to appear regularly on a major network television program. And in keeping with the new threshold, Shaver's character will not be the butt of jokes or ridicule but a dedicated teacher wrestling with the vicissitudes of life that everyone-gay, straight, bisexual or transgendered-encounters in everyday life.

The largest cluster of gay TV characters will appear when Showtime's dramatic series Queer As Folk returns in January. The program, which is watched by more people than any other on the cable channel, focuses on five gay men and two lesbians living in a Pittsburgh that's about as close to the real thing as Emerald City was to Kansas.

QAF initially seemed like nothing more than a showcase for gay soft porn-not that this viewer was complaining! But as the season progressed, the show burrowed deeper and deeper into the characters as well many of the real-life issues facing members of the community today. While waiting to see how the cliffhanger from last season plays out, viewers can watch the first 22 segments as they are re-broadcast throughout the fall. Queer as Folk is back for a second season of gay titilation

Another returning dramatic series with a cluster of gay characters, albeit a smaller one, is ER. Last year, the popular medical drama's Dr. Carrie Weaver, played by Laura Innes, took some time off from her demanding job as a hard-as-nails hospital administrator to spend at least a few episodes with a female lover. That affair had ended by the season's final episode, but if we all clap our hands really, really hard . . . maybe the programming executives at NBC will bring the couple back together again.

Valerie Rae Miller as Original Cindy in Fox's Dark Angel Meanwhile, the medical team on ER will continue to include Asian American Yosh Takata, played by Gedde Watanabe, as one of the few gay persons of color on prime-time television. Others on that short list are Valerie Rae Miller as Original Cindy on Fox's Dark Angel and Michael Boatman as Carter Heywood on ABC's Spin City.

The biggest news in TV sitcoms is the return of DeGeneres, after a four-year hiatus and a change in networks, starring in The Ellen Show on CBS. The title character is a happy, well-adjusted lesbian who goes back to her hometown where no one questions her lifestyle.

DeGeneres' 1997 coming-out episode drew an impressive 36 million viewers, but the show's audience subsequently dwindled and the show was canceled soon thereafter.

The red-hot world of television reality programming will continue to have a gay presence, too. Richard Hatch led the way when he walked away with the million-dollar prize in the original Survivor, with many of us hoping he used the money to buy enough clothes to cover the gym-deprived physique that he showed a little more of than we needed to see.

This fall's reality-show competitors include Joseph and Bill, a California couple who describe themselves on the CBS Web site as life partners. They're one of 11 teams on The Amazing Race, a show that sends pairs of travelers to different points around the country, with the last team to make it to any given destination being eliminated from the show. Gay couple Joe and Bill are on an Amazing Race, seen this fall on CBS

Rodger Streitmatter is a member of the School of Communication faculty at American University in Washington, D.C.

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