I ask you, is there a more luckless fellow on television than Matt (Doug Savant), the at-least-he's-supposed-to-be-gay character on Melrose Place? As you either saw or heard about, on the Fox series' May 18 season finale two hours during which diverse Americans united to gaze in wordless admiration at Heather Locklear's heroic hemlines Matt was actually permitted to put the moves on a guy. That the guy (played by Ty Miller) was the best man at the (abortive) wedding of Billy (Andrew Shue) and Alison (Courtney Thorne- Smith) only made Matt's conquest more potentially sweet.
But just as the two men were succumbing to a quick smooch, the scene went all slow-mo, and a few frames before male lips might have touched male lips, there was an abrupt cut to Billy, staring at Matt and Rob. (I was going to write "staring slack-jawed" to suggest Billy's appalled surprise, but Shue's jaw is always slack.) And so, one of the few moments this season when Matt reached for a little human happiness and spontaneity was censored by Fox this from a network that thinks nothing of showing us the grotesque Peg and Al Bundy pressing flesh on Married With Children.
The Melrose cutaway kiss was the second instance of fascinating weasel-editing in prime time last month. Over at Northern Exposure, bed-and-breakfast owners Erick (Don R. McManus) and Ron (Doug Ballard) decided to make their informal partnership official by getting married. The requisite moral reservations about a homosexual union were voiced by Maurice (Barry Corbin), television's most complicated bigot. After all, Maurice is a sensitive art- and wine-lover, a good cook, and he's named Maurice, for Pete's sake, all of which are pop-culture stereotypes for someone who is, as my uncle used to say, "a little light in the loafers." Now, you may recall that the town of Cicely was founded by lesbians, and Exposure enjoys a reputation as a scraggly, offbeat show the Ben & Jerry's of network television. But Exposure was not so funky as to let us see Erick and Ron's kiss at the altar; once again, the camera cut away.
PBS' summer documentary series P.O.V. is presenting a more serious, if gratifyingly quirky, film with a gay theme this week. One Nation Under God spends most of its time with Exodus International, an evangelical Christian organization that believes, in the words of one of its former members, "it is not only possible but desirable to go from gay to straight." To this end, many self-proclaimed "ex-gay" Exodus adherents appear on screen, testifying to their joy now that they've accepted both Jesus and heterosexuality into their lives. The fact that so many of them sound unconvincing and look absolutely miserable makes the filmmakers' point: that no matter how fervent one's faith, it's unlikely that one can alter one's sexuality by force of will.
TV has long been more interested than movies in exploring gay-related issues, even if these efforts, including TV movies such as An Early Frost, Our Sons, and Longtime Companion tend to be, in the words of novelist and gay-pop-culture-critic Dennis Cooper, "intensely watered-down yet positive portrayal[s] of lesbian and gay life." Still, it seems that television depictions of homosexuals have become more common and casual lately. Sure, there was a brouhaha when Roseanne Conner was bussed by a lesbian played by Mariel Hemingway on Roseanne earlier this season. On the other hand, there wasn't much hubbub over last week's soapy NBC TV movie Roommates, which offered Eric Stoltz as a gay man with AIDS who forms a strong, chaste friendship with a straight man with AIDS, played by Randy Quaid. And then there's that remarkably offhand, widely praised IKEA commercial in which Steve and Mitch chat about how they're now committed to each other enough that it's "time for a serious dining room table."
But as the kiss-avoidance pattern suggests, TV is still very wary of offending homophobes not so much ordinary viewers, but the noisy, protesting fringe groups. The January PBS adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City was one of the rare TV movies to show, in addition to some physical affection, what Cooper has called "the kinds of details that make a subculture several times more interesting than its wishy-washier surroundings." Tales got great ratings and reviews, and there's a ton of Maupin material around to provide a profitable follow-up, but PBS has declined to fund its share of a proposed sequel. Maybe the Fox network, as reparation for being so mean to Melrose's Matt, should pony up some dough for the Tales sequel. But then, who'd have the guts to air it? B