When we talk about the so-called Golden Age of Television that we are presently living through, the common elements of the conversation are well-established: anguished middle-aged white men, their put-upon and much-despised wives, issues of sexual assault and debates about ultra-violence. But as I have been watching through “Friday Night Lights” for the first time, it struck me that some of these shows have another element in common: surprising encounters in gay bars.
In “Friday Night Lights,” Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) accompanies her friend Devin Boland (Stephanie Hunt) to the gay bar closest to their small town of Dillon, Tex., as a gesture of solidarity. As Devin tentatively exchanges glances with a few cute girls close to her age across the bar, Julie looks around, unsure of her role in the proceedings now that she has given Devin the courage to make the drive and walk in the door. And she finds herself locking eyes with someone unexpected: Stan Traub (Russell DeGrazier), the assistant coach who works with her father at the newly reopened East Dillon High School.
It is a moment that brings Stan’s character into sudden focus. We, and Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), first met Stan at his day job at Sears, where he explains that he has been faxing Taylor his résumé repeatedly in the hopes of breaking in with the reconstituted East Dillon Lions. He is an almost obsessively enthusiastic man, but a bit of an empty one, too: When they start learning how to work together, Taylor snaps at Stan for repeating everything he says as if it is some sort of mantra.
When Julie finds Stan at a pep rally for the Lions and reassures him that she intends to keep his secret, we get the real measure of his hollowness. Stan insists that Julie saw nothing, that there is no secret to keep. He has made his truest self invisible, even to himself.
“Friday Night Lights” leaves it at that — this is more Julie’s education in the complexities of sexuality and adulthood than Stan’s journey to self-actualization.
“The Wire” takes the same approach with William Rawls (John Doman), the Baltimore Police Department major who becomes deputy commissioner of the service. We know Rawls primarily through his work: He is obscene, careerist, willing to adopt policing strategies that have little relationship to the actual safety and security of Baltimore residents if that is what is politically expedient.
We get a rare sense that there might be more to him in the first season of the series after one of his detectives, Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), is shot and critically injured while working undercover. The lecture Rawls gives to Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a detective under his command and a perpetual irritant to Rawls, is a foul-mouthed and effective masterpiece of consolation. But it is also about self-abnegation. “You did not do this, you f—— hear me?” Rawls tells his devastated colleague. “This is not on you. No it isn’t, a——. Believe it or not, everything isn’t about you.”
Rawls sometimes seems just as self-centered as McNulty can be. But we learn in the third season of “The Wire” how much of himself Rawls has set aside. Another character spots him having a drink in a gay bar. “The Wire” does not reconcile Rawls as a gay man, Rawls as a married man (we see pictures of him with his family on his desk) and Rawls as a brutally ambitious man.
I have mixed feelings about this decision. “The Wire” has other issues and plots to resolve, and there is something honest about leaving Rawls a man divided. But as with “Friday Night Lights,” I am left curious about both Stan and Rawls, and about navigating both Texas football and the Baltimore Police Department as closeted gay men.
“The Sopranos” devoted more attention to this subject in a plotline late in the series. Gangster Vito Spatafore (Joseph R. Gannascoli) is first spotted performing oral sex on another man on a dock, and later skips out on a mob wedding to go to a gay club where members of another crime family see him dancing with another man. Afraid for his life, Vito flees to New Hampshire.
Unlike the shows that would follow it, “The Sopranos” follows Vito as he tries to shake off the psychological effects of the closet and the culture of the mob and to live as an openly gay man. He almost sabotages his first chance at a relationship with another man, though they ultimately begin a romance. But Vito is lonely and bored in exile: Ultimately, he decides his work and his family are more important and tries to return home.
And “The Sopranos” is also about how organizations that think of themselves as bastions of heterosexuality respond when a man they thought was straight turns out to be gay. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is willing to tolerate Vito’s sexual orientation on a personal level, but is concerned about the professional problems Vito’s behavior will cause them. And when Vito is murdered by another gangster, the crime is about both homophobia and mob organizational hierarchies.
In prestige television, gay bars act as a kind of portal: Straight characters step into them and are surprised by what they learn, not only about men they thought they knew, but about themselves. It is a measure of both the promise and limitations of the so-called Golden Age of Television that the treatment of gay men in homophobic organizations by “The Sopranos” did not prove quite as influential as James Gandolfini’s performance as the titular mobster.