By Michael Maloney
Special to TelevisionWeek
“Will & Grace” is gone, but there will be plenty of gay-themed television programming for viewers to tune in to this fall.
While cable TV is predominantly the place to go for gay-related shows, at least one new sitcom with gay characters will appear on a major network. Scheduled to air Mondays at 8:30 p.m. (ET) is CBS’s “The Class,” created by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik (who are partners both at work and at home). The program deals with a group of grade school classmates who are reunited in their late 20s.
Openly gay Kyle, played by Sean Maguire, reconnects with his former prom date Holly, portrayed by Lucy Punch. Viewers will quickly wonder whether Holly has failed to hone her “gaydar” over the years upon meeting her husband, the cheerily-named Perry Pearl (played by Sam Harris), who just adores cooking, has a TiVo season pass to “Oprah” and easily could put Nathan Lane or Harvey Fierstein to shame in terms of flamboyancy.
“The question is, ‘Is he or isn’t he?'” Mr. Klarik asked rhetorically of the theatrical Perry’s true sexual identity. “We’ve all known guys like [Perry]. I always say he’s more ‘homo’ than ‘sexual.’ He loves his wife, Oprah and cooking. If you were to ask him, he’d say he was straight.”
“But Perry would be stunned that you’d be asking him,” Mr. Crane hastened to add. “On its own, [Perry and Holly] have a great marriage, which is what makes it such a mystery. We never intend to answer that question.”
One mystery that will be answered is who’s the killer, on the second installment of the “Donald Strachey Mystery” on here! TV. Out actor Chad Allen returns as the openly gay fictional detective in “A Shock to the System,” set to debut Aug. 4. Donald goes undercover into a controversial “ex-gay” group that tries to help gays live straight lives, which prompts the flatfoot to examine some issues and doubts of his own with his lover Timmy Callahan, played by Sebastian Spence.
“That’s a part of the film that really touches a lot of us who have walked that path,” said Mr. Allen. “I can say on sure footing that I’m so grateful for the expression of sexuality that God has given me, but it’s impossible not to say that I haven’t wondered would life have been easier [if I were straight].”
Mr. Allen feels that the “Donald Strachey Mystery” movies have a mainstream element to them in that “This isn’t about making a gay movie. It’s about making a great noir mystery. It just so happens that when Donald goes home at night, he goes home to his partner instead of his wife.”
Also returning to here! is “Dante’s Cove,” the supernatural-themed soap opera featuring several well-buffed and attractive gay male characters. The series, which debuts its second season Sept. 1, stars Tracy Scoggins of “Dynasty” fame as Grace, a witch from the 19th century who was betrayed by Ambrosius, her gay fianc%E9;. “I’m a cross between Joan Collins and Barnabas Collins,” Ms. Scoggins quipped of her character, who is tragic, sympathetic and biting (at least with her comments).
While it was considered scandalous in the 1980s for “Dynasty’s” Steven Carrington to hold hands with another man, “Dante’s Cove” has shown plenty of gay sexuality, including frontal male nudity. “It’s the same thing we’ve seen in heterosexual films since the late 1960s,” Ms. Scoggins noted. “What’s the big deal?”
While Grace remains at the center of the action, there are plenty of changes in “Dante’s Cove’s” second season, said Meredith Kadlec, VP of original programming for here! Networks.
The first season of “Dante’s Cove” consisted of two two-hour movies. Season two will comprise five one-hour episodes. This year Grace will appear in modern times. “She still has the same elegance and richness, but she’s updated chic,” Ms. Scoggins said. “She’s the devil in Prada.”
Other changes include the cast addition of Thea Gill (“Queer as Folk”) as Diana, Grace’s sister. “Any great soap opera needs a diva battle at the heart of it,” Ms. Kadlec said. Additionally, Jon Fleming, best known as Russell, Jack’s hunky, shirtless acting student in “Will & Grace,” takes over the role of Adam from Stephen Amell.
Returning in October for a sophomore season on The N Network is “South of Nowhere,” which deals with a family whose members are searching for their identities. Season one ended with the core brood’s daughter Spencer, played by Gabrielle Christian, kissing her girlfriend Ashley, portrayed by Mandy Musgrave.
“Season two is about them having a relationship,” series creator/executive producer Tom Lynch said. “It’s not unlike any other teen love story, except theirs has social and public taboos around it.”
Eric Johnson’s real-life role as the chief of staff to Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) is brought to the airwaves in Sundance Channel’s original series “The Hill,” which debuts Aug. 23. Mr. Johnson had no choice but to acknowledge his personal life, since his partner, James de Jesus, works alongside him as a legislative assistant in the office.
“We knew the director, Ivy Meeropol, couldn’t do the show [as truthfully] given that I’m out and my partner works in the same office,” Mr. Johnson said. “We were very comfortable [with the cameras].”
Scenes of Mr. Johnson’s kinetic energy paired with the comparatively more reserved (and taller) Mr. Wexler bring to mind a certain Michael J. Fox/Barry Bostwick vibe from “Spin City.” “I think that’s what this is closest to,” Mr. Johnson said of the comparison.
In one episode of “The Hill,” the mother of Lale Mamaux, Mr. Wexler’s press secretary, opts to change her vote in Virginia’s gubernatorial election after she gets to know Mr. Johnson, Mr. de Jesus and their son. “She felt that she wanted to support gay families and the Republican [candidate] didn’t,” said Mr. Johnson.
Politics plays a role on Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” which premieres Aug. 29 and chronicles the lives of top real estate agents in Hollywood and Malibu. “We have a few gay characters in ‘Million Dollar Listing,'” said Frances Berwick, senior VP of programming and production for Bravo. “A house seller is selling his house and is moving out of the country to somewhere where he finds it more politically friendly. He talks about how much he disapproves of the current political climate.”
Also, Realtor Michael Wegmann-aka “Mr. Mom”-is trying to have a child with his partner in between showing homes to perspective buyers. “The primary focus [of the series] is on the [agents] as they go about selling houses,” said Ms. Berwick, who said she feels that the inclusion of gay characters in programming today is done to “portray as diverse a picture of the population as possible. [But] it’s still surprising how people separate gay characters. We’ve gone so far beyond that.”
In some Bravo series, the sexuality of some gay participants didn’t come to light until after the run ended. “There were characters on ‘Project Runway’ that would talk about their sexuality,” Ms. Berwick said. “There were others who were gay and we didn’t even know it till after the show was over. It should be something that is kind of irrelevant.”
“I think television reflects our culture; I don’t think it leads it,” Mr. Lynch said. “[Having gay characters on TV programs] went from being never discussed to being radical to being wrong to now being part of our lives. It’s a part of our culture.”