We all know that the emotional closeness shared by straight women and gay men is a wonder to behold; from an evolutionary perspective, scientists say the dynamic lacks many of the “deceptive mating strategies” that sully other relationships.
Gay men and straight men, on the other hand, have a more historically complicated — but no less rich — dynamic, and TV shows have been attempting to capture it since the ‘70s. Once proverbial (and literal) punching bags, gays on TV are today more likely to be the glue that holds an ensemble together. They offer sage counsel to their straight brethren, help them write better text messages, give fashion advice and basically do all the things they do in the wild. At the same time, there are things about the straight experience that will always be a mystery to gays and the distance this sometimes engenders (even when straight men go out of their way to be super-accepting!) has remained unexplored in TV-land. Same goes for the unrequited longing that’s sometimes a byproduct of close gay-straight friendships. (Sure, it’s been caricatured by comedies like The Simpsons and 30 Rock but rarely is it given serious analysis by a drama.)
But, in the grand scheme of things, the golden age of TV is really just beginning; who knows how realistic (and messy, hopefully) things will get? Here, a non-exhaustive compendium of gay-straight TV relationships over the past 30 years.
The men: Jodie and Burt
One of the first gay characters on TV, Billy Crystal’s Jodie is given more depth than most of his costars. This was the result of hard work on the part of creator Susan Harris, who had to battle a cultural climate that was openly hostile to gays. (The same year the show launched, Anita Bryant called homosexuals “human garbage” and notes from ABC leaked to the Los Angeles Times in 1977 revealed that while executives were okay with Jodie being gay, they were nervous about him discussing any “explicit or intimate aspects of homosexuality.”)
To explore the tensions between the gay and straight worlds, Harris created the character of Burt, Jodie’s stepfather. His relationship with Jodie is strained from the get-go — he’s not a fan of the gays, generally. Over time, though, his demeanor around Jodie softens. Burt is representative of the older, conservative American who might have accidentally stumbled on to the show, and you get the sense that Harris is attempting to coax acceptance from these viewers.
Nature of the relationship: Hesitant and wary.
The men: Steven and Blake Carrington
One of the first gay characters on TV who wasn’t played for laughs, Steven Carrington starred in this very dramatic coming-out scene involving an expensive urn. (Lots of people try to calm him down but Steven is through being calm.) The gravitas of the moment is compounded by the fact that these characters have a dynasty to uphold, you know? (Dynasties require babies.)
The relationship between Steven and Blake, his father, is not good. When Steven says he’s in love with a man, his father rolls his eyes. When he says, “I’m a homosexual, Dad,” his father looks like he’s going to cry. As the music swells, the women repeat “Steven is gay” almost like a mantra — but his father doesn’t join in.
I can’t picture Steven and his dad playing football. I can, however, picture them having a tolerable evening together at whatever the ‘80s equivalent of SoHo House was, so long as they don’t talk too much or order a shared plate.
Nature of the relationship: Strained and painful.
‘The Simpsons,’ 1989–
The men: Waylon Smithers and Mr. Burns
The Simpsons’ long-running joke is that Smithers is head-over-heels in love with his boss, Mr. Burns. Smithers even sings a song about his thwarted love for the nuclear power magnate. But like Jonathan, Jack Donaghy’s personal assistant on 30 Rock, Smithers goes about trying to get into his boss’s pants all wrong: He is sycophantic to the point of suffocation. A closet case for much of the series, he is — stereotypically, one might add — a workaholic who drowns his feelings in paperwork, occasionally coming up for air to say “yes” to Mr. Burns. Sad! (Despite the desperate vibes, Burns says in an episode that he will reward Smithers for all his hard work with the “honor” of being buried alive with him after he dies.)
Nature of the relationship: Dysfunctional and one-sided.
‘Gilmore Girls,’ 2000–2007
The men: Michel Gerard and Luke
There’s always been some controversy over whether Michel, Stars Hollow’s famously frosty concierge, is actually gay. (“Is Michel Gay or Just French?” reads one headline at GilmoreNews.com.) For whatever reason, the show’s creators made Michel’s sexuality ambiguous, but there is no doubting that he’s one cutting queen. His back and forth with Luke here is dripping with disdain. I truly wish I’d had the courage to interact with customers that way when I worked in food service. Bravo, Michel.
Nature of the relationship: Ice cold.
‘Six Feet Under,’ 2001–2005
The men: David and Nate Fisher
The Fisher brothers have one of the most complex and fleshed-out relationships on Six Feet Under. While David initially rejects Nate’s sudden return home to help run the family business, he ends up leaning on Nate for emotional support. Throughout the seasons — when David’s promiscuity becomes a problem, when he is traumatized by a terrifying carjacking and when he is grappling with his religious beliefs — there’s an emotional closeness, if not a warmth, between him and his brother that always feels real and earned.
Nature of the relationship: Brotherly love.
‘The Wire,’ 2002–2008
The men: Omar Little and Butchie
Omar is one of the most notorious stick-up men in The Wire’s Baltimore (he hums “The Farmer in the Dell” menacingly while stalking the streets, causing drug dealers to flee their stoops in fear). But he also lives by a strict moral code, refusing to harm innocent people or even to use curse words. Omar’s incidental gayness doesn’t affect his relationship with Butchie, a blind barkeep who serves as his banker and adviser. If you want to talk to Omar, you’d best talk to Butchie.
Nature of the relationship: Mutually respectful.
‘30 Rock,’ 2006–2013
The men: Jack and Kenneth
While a plethora of gay characters have appeared on 30 Rock (notably Subhas, the janitor, who proclaims “Sex is a continuum and I am but a voyager on a vast ocean of pleasure”), Kenneth is the most visible. Yes, he falls in love with a blind girl, but he also uses his Southern, boyish charm to manipulate Devin, Jack’s gay arch-nemesis.
His relationship with Jack is telling. In one instance, he tells Jack that he constantly lies to himself; in another, he requests a man-hug as payment. Something is going on with these two.
Nature of the relationship: Brimming with sexual possibility.
‘Happy Endings,’ 2011–2013
The men: Max and Dave
Max has been called one of the least stereotypical gay guys ever portrayed on a television show. Like a man-child in a Judd Apatow film, he is a freeloading slacker who enjoys shirking responsibilities, playing video games and watching sports. When Alex and David fail at being a couple, David moves in with Max, but it’s chill: They’re just friends who enjoy doing similar dude stuff. Stereotypes: exploded.
Nature of the relationship: Bro-y and chill.
The men: Elijah and Ray
Girls has been criticized left and right for a lack of inclusion, but Elijah doesn’t feel like an afterthought; rather, he’s integral to the other characters and their sense of self. He’s probably the most grounded character of all, though of course that’s not saying much.
Elijah has a lovingly combative relationship with every male character on Girls but his banter with Ray is especially straightforward: “Don’t be thirsty,” Elijah instructs Ray when he’s pining for Marnie.
Nature of the relationship: Almost shtetl’ly.