The Academy Awards are here again, which means at least two things. First, that my employer should expect me to call in sick to work on 29th February; and second, that particular attention is being paid to the decision-making of a few mostly male, mostly white Academy members as to whether or not the diversity that eludes their ranks might finally surface in their votes. The general feeling seems to be that it won’t, with accusations already made about Carol being snubbed for Best Picture and Best Director nominations because of the film’s lesbian content. The scrutiny of onscreen diversity isn’t just black and white, it’s rainbow-coloured too, and it isn’t just the Oscars that are being watched.
When HBO announced in March last year that Looking (above), its 2014 TV show about three gay thirty-somethings living in San Francisco, would not be renewed for a third season, it was tempting for fans and critics alike to search for correlations between the network’s decision and the show’s LGBTIQ focus. If you take a look back through the media coverage of the announcement, you won’t just read about a television show getting cancelled, you’ll read about how a gay show was lost.
What is a gay show, exactly? Is it simply a show that appeals to the gay community, as Golden Girls did, or is there something manifest we can identify in one, some specific, measurable, molecular requirement in its makeup? As a series, Looking followed the lives of a group of men who liked men, portrayed by a mostly gay principal cast, set in the LGBTIQ HQ of the world, and was directed by a homosexual man for a TV network whose chief executive also happens to be gay. Of the show, HBO president Michael Lombardo said in a statement, ‘As a gay man, in particular, I was very proud that there was a show that felt like it was dealing very honestly and openly with gay men and their lives.’ So, alright, let’s agree for the moment that Looking was a gay show. Did that have any bearing on its ratings or the network’s decision to axe it? Was the series too gay?
It wouldn’t be the first time a major television network has been concerned about the LGBTIQ focus of one of its shows alienating its viewers. The ABC came under fire in 2013 after its decision to bump Josh Thomas’s new dramedy Please Like Me from ABC1 to ABC2, a smaller, digital channel with a younger and therefore supposedly more appropriate audience for the show, whose pilot episode featured the main character (played by Thomas) beginning to acknowledge his homosexuality.
‘[The ABC] told me it was a compliment. I don’t believe them,’ Thomas said of the decision to swap channels at the last minute. ‘I don’t know if what they were saying was, “Josh, the show is a bit shit,” or, “Josh, the show has too much suicide and gay sex in it.” People have suggested to me that is why they did it. I would be shocked if that’s why, but I also wouldn’t be.’
But after the show’s first season garnered critical acclaim and international attention, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had another change of heart and re-installed it on ABC1. Please Like Me was also picked up by Pivot, Participant Media’s cable network in the US, extending its reach even further. Gay or not, Please Like Me was doing well. It scooped awards last year for writing, editing, directing and acting, and was renewed for a third season before its second season had even aired. Looking, by comparison, never made it to season three. Neither show’s ratings were ever particularly impressive, but one show went on to outlive the other. The question is, why?
Whereas Looking focused almost exclusively on the lives of gay men, Please Like Me (and other, hit shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent) found ways to better integrate both non-heteronormative and heteronormative characters and storylines – just as they are integrated in life. At a time when acceptance of the LGBTIQ community is higher than ever, the necessity for a show as singularly focused as Looking is questionable. Audiences, both gay and straight, seem to prefer a more well-rounded television narrative. Looking was also maligned by members of the LGBTIQ community who felt the show wasn’t diverse enough in its representation of gay lives. Of course, no show can ever be fully representative of an entire group of people, but by purporting to be a gay show, Looking was expected, however unfairly, to do just that.
Please Like Me certainly never packaged itself as a gay show. Though it follows the awkward coming-of-age process of a central gay character, it is as much about familial conflict, mental illness, changing friendship dynamics, and marital discord as it is about homosexuality. By positioning itself as a show about universal touch-points, Please Like Me has continued to weave a narrative about a gay character without causing any fuss.
It seems Australian audiences find this a more palatable approach to dealing with gay themes. On 15 October last year, Please Like Me’s season three premiere episode ‘Eggplant’ showed main character Josh and his boyfriend Arnold (played by Keegan Joyce) having sex for the first time. The scene was enormously progressive for the ABC, and for Australian television as a whole, both for the level of detail the scene allowed and for its romantic and honest execution. Had the scene appeared in the pilot episode of the series however, as Looking’s sex scenes did, network and audience reactions might have been quite different. As it was, viewers had had two seasons to become familiar with the show and form a connection with its characters. In a scene that would make every gay man jealous about how they lost their own virginity, the sex between Josh and Arnold was less about two men and more about two people. Rightly so.
Before Please Like Me, gay television in Australia was sparse. In 2010, Neighbours introduced James Mason’s character, Chris Pappas, who went on to become the first ongoing, male homosexual character in the show’s now 31-year history. In 2012, Mason gave the series its first kiss between two men. By comparison, American teen drama Dawson’s Creek featured the ‘first passionate kiss between two men’ on US primetime television way back in 2000. Then, a year later, on-screen girlfriends Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson kissed for the first time in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Australia was lagging.
Do Australian viewers need more handholding than American ones when it comes to LGBTIQ content onscreen? Maybe. Equal representation of LGBTIQ people has historically been less prominent in local media and political landscapes than in America, but Australia is slowly becoming braver. Following what I’ll call the ‘Please Like Me model’, SBS recently launched its new comedy series The Family Law. Based on Australian author Benjamin Law’s memoir of the same name, the series features a gay lead character but, as with Please Like Me, treats the fact as a subplot, preferring instead to focus on issues like family, divorce, and Australian and ethnic identity.
Like ‘straight television’, gay television will continue to adapt and evolve even as our own attitudes do. I wish there was a place in the world both for Looking and Please Like Me outside of my own laptop, but for the moment there doesn’t seem to be. It seems that Looking’s cancellation is reflective of an American viewership that has now reached such a point of tolerance and acceptance for the LGBTIQ community, that the show went largely unnoticed for all the right reasons.
Perhaps when Australia catches up to our trans-Pacific cousins, when same-sex marriage passes in the lucky country, we’ll finally be able to stop always noticing what’s gay and what isn’t?