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Out of the closet, on the tube
Gay issues, characters, join prime time
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The powerhouse hit "Will & Grace" is back for season No. 3, bringing with it an enviable pedigree. The show, about a gay man and his straight best friend, won three Emmys in September -- best comedy, and best supporting actor and actress.
The NBC sitcom, airing at 9 p.m. EDT Thursdays, also is helping bring a message to the masses: Gay is here to stay.
Hollywood trade paper Daily Variety has a special issue this week devoted to gay entertainment including movies, music and TV. Not to be outdone, the current edition of Entertainment Weekly sports a front-page headline that says it all: "Gay Hollywood 2000." Inside, the magazine highlights 101 gay movers and shakers in the entertainment industry.
More entertainers are open about their sexuality than ever before, and entertainment reflects that openness, said Mark Harris, assistant managing editor of Entertainment Weekly. The magazine is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.
"We did a gay entertainment issue five years ago and had a lot of trouble finding even a dozen people who were open in the industry and willing to be profiled," he said. "This time we found hundreds, with dozens to spare."
Leading gay characters
According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, there are more than a dozen new and returning television shows this fall whose lead or supporting characters are gay.
In addition to "Will & Grace," two other prime-time shows feature leading gay roles.
John Goodman stars in the new show "Normal, Ohio" (Fox, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.) as a single gay dad returning to his hometown, and Alyson Hannigan continues her role as Buffy's faithful friend Willow, a lesbian, on "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" (WB Network, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.).
The shows' goal is to offer good stories, not a specific sexual agenda, said Greg Berlanti, executive producer of "Dawson's Creek" (WB, Wednesdays at 8 p.m.). The teen drama features a supporting gay character.
"There's no doubt that television is at the forefront, and it's sort of continuing to widen that audience and make things palatable to everyone as a whole," he said.
Todd Holland, a two-time Emmy winning director for "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Malcolm in the Middle," agrees with Berlanti. "At the end of the day, what people really want is to be entertained," said Holland, who came out several years ago.
Other traits, too
Just how out of the closet Holland is became evident this year when he kissed his partner at the Emmy ceremony before bounding to the stage to accept an award for "Malcolm." How diverse is TV's offering of gay characters these days?
"Dark Angel" (Fox, Tuesdays at 9 p.m.); "Grosse Point" (WB, Fridays at 8:30 p.m.); "Beggars and Choosers" (Showtime, Tuesdays at 10 p.m.); "Felicity" (WB, Wednesdays at 9 p.m.); "Bette" (CBS, Wednedays at 8 p.m.); "Sex and the City" (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m.); "Spin City" (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.); and "Queer as Folk" (a Showtime series airing in December) all have continuing gay characters or storylines.
Being gay is not always a character's overriding trait, said Michael Boatman, who plays the mayor's gay director of minority affairs on "Spin City."
"The writers ... wanted this character's sexuality to be not the only thing that's important about him," said Boatman. "All of our sexuality's important for us, but it's not the most important thing. It's just a part of who we are."
Ellen DeGeneres can take some credit for that. The actress came out in life and on screen three years ago in her comedy series. That coming-out episode attracted 36 million viewers, and placed the issue of sexual preference in the middle of TV screens everywhere.
The coming out was a watershed in how the public perceives how homosexuality is portrayed on TV, said Boze Hadleigh, author of the just-published "In or Out: Gay and Straight Celebrities Talk About Themselves and Each Other" (Barricade Books).
"Ellen was gay, playing a gay character, and what the American public and showbiz establishment are far more comfortable with is somebody heterosexual or supposedly heterosexual playing a gay or lesbian character," Hadleigh said. "They don't want the reality underneath to seep through."
Since then, gay TV characters have become more complex, defined by more than sexuality, said Holland. "I think 'Will & Grace' pulls that off -- elegantly," he said.
The show does hit the right balance, agreed Sean Hayes, who plays best friend Jack on "Will & Grace."
"Really," Hayes said last month, moments after winning an Emmy for best supporting actor, "our first priority is to make people laugh."
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