Part of what’s striking about this new crop of characters is the way they differ from TV lesbians of the past, who often existed to spur character growth in the protagonists of shows in which they appeared. Instead, these new gay characters serve very different functions and storylines of their own; they have independent reasons to exist, instead of simply proving that a show’s characters are capable of tolerance.
In “Grandfathered,” premiering on Fox tonight, Jimmy (John Stamos), a womanizing restaurant owner who learns that he has a son (Josh Peck) and a granddaughter all in the same day, works with Annalise (Kelly Jenrette), the general manager of his business. “Girlfriend?” Jimmy’s ex Sara (Paget Brewster) wants to know when Jimmy shows up at her house with Annalise, demanding to know why Sara didn’t tell him she had a child. “Employee. Lesbian. It’s a job requirement,” Annalise tells her.
If Jimmy wants to work with a woman he can’t become romantically involved with, “Grandfathered” benefits from the dynamic, too. Annalise’s presence automatically gives Jimmy a female colleague and friend who can’t be reduced to will-they-or-won’t-they cliches, who can hang in a male-dominated kitchen without being subject to a weird, flirtatious dynamic and who can give Jimmy a hard time without being treated like a sexually unattractive shrew.
“Annalise keeps John’s character, Jimmy, in check. She runs it, because he can’t,” Jenrette said when I asked about the characters’ friendship at the Television Critics Association press tour in August. “Even though they have this relationship that could at times seem combative, she really loves him, and she cares for him and really wants the best for him. She just doesn’t show that in a very nice way.” (In busting on Jimmy, Annalise is also something of an audience surrogate, giving this ridiculously handsome, slightly irritating man the ribbing that we can’t, and cutting him down to size in a way that makes him seem like an actual person.)
The dynamic’s a bit different in medical drama “Rosewood,” which premiered on Fox on Sept. 23. That show features an older straight man and a younger gay woman, but this time, they’re brother and sister: Dr. Beaumont Rosewood (Morris Chestnut) runs a private pathology lab where he works with his sister Pippy (Gabrielle Dennis) and her fiancee, Kathy (Anna Konkle). Like Jimmy, Rosewood’s a bit of a womanizer, but he’s also highly vulnerable, saddled with serious health problems that mean he can’t seriously contemplate the future and is at risk of becoming seriously ill.
In this context, Pippy and Kathy’s strong, healthy relationship puts pressure on Rosewood, but not in a Very Special Episode kind of way — “They’re embraced,” Dennis told me of Pippy’s strong relationship with her brother and mother (Lorraine Toussaint) in an August interview. Instead, their happiness and stability are a reminder that Rosewood hasn’t achieved that kind of stability and serenity.
“It’s a double-edged minority sword here, being a female — well, three times if you look at it that way — you’re a woman, you’re playing a woman who is of the lesbian community, and you’re also a minority, you’re black,” Dennis said of Pippy. “So in this pivotal time that we’re in in society right now, where I feel like everyone’s watching your every move every second that we have something that represents a culture and a people in a positive light, I’m all for it. I’m glad I get to play her. She’s a fun and likable person and she brings all that energy to the table.” In “Rosewood,” it’s a gay couple who makes a straight man look less than complete.
“Survivor’s Remorse,” Starz’s uproarious comedy about a basketball player and his extended family, also features a straight brother and gay sister, though the power dynamic between them is different. Mary Charles (Erica Ash), known as M-Chuck, is the older sister to Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher), and while as children she protected him from a predatory man, now that they’re adults and Cam is both famous and wealthy, their relationship has become more fraught and unstable. In the first season of the show, Cam struggled to find a church that would welcome Mary Charles as a member. This year, the two have to go on an apology tour after Mary Charles punches Cam in the face and the footage is leaked to the media by the family’s house manager; Mary Charles’s evasive answers during an NPR interview made for one of the funniest scenes of the season.
But while TV’s lesbian characters are often defined by their relationships to their male friends and relatives, Mary Charles has equally strong relationships with her mother, Cassie (Tichina Arnold), and Missy (Teyonah Parris), her cousin Reggie’s (RonReaco Lee) wife. And her presence in the show lets “Survivor’s Remorse” talk frankly about sexuality and femininity in a way that few other series attempt.
“Because M-Chuck is a lesbian, and she’s also more of the masculine one because she’s grown up with her brother, it was really just her and her brother and her uncle because her mom worked a lot, it was a very sort of tough upbringing,” Ash said of the dynamic between M-Chuck and Missy when we spoke on the phone in August. “She’s kind of rough around the edges, and opposites attract. She looks for the soft and feminine when she looks for a woman, if she has that. So that’s a very attractive quality in Missy, and that’s something that M-Chuck may desire to possess for herself.”
At the same time, Missy, a product of excellent private schools and formal etiquette classes, is attracted to the wildness in M-Chuck; early episodes this season saw her smashing a racist lawn jockey statue to bits and chopping off her hair to go natural in acts of rebellion.
And M-Chuck has an exceptionally close and frank relationship with her mother, Cassie, who is beginning to explore her sexuality again after having spent much of her youth raising her children.
“I think a lot of mothers do share and talk to their daughters about sex. They just don’t talk to their daughters the way that Cassie talks to M-Chuck. They don’t talk to anybody the way that the Calloways talk in general!” Ash suggested. “Yes it is jarring, and yes, it is a lot. But it fits with the Calloway vibe.” Earlier this season, when Cassie decided to have vaginal rejuvenation surgery, she asked her daughter to look at the results and reassure her that the procedure had gone well; M-Chuck delivered the verdict with her customary enthusiastic vulgarity.
If M-Chuck is an intermittent force of chaos, Dr. Luisa Alver (Yara Martinez) on “Jane The Virgin” is a soap opera writer’s dream. She’s a recovering alcoholic who kickstarted the action on the CW show, which is simultaneously a wicked parody of telenovelas and a wickedly effective telenovela, by accidentally artificially inseminating Jane Gloriana Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) with sperm donated by Luisa’s brother, Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni), and that Rafael’s wife, Petra (Yael Grobglas) planned to use without his knowledge or consent. (If that’s a lot to keep straight, you’re not alone; “Jane The Virgin” opens each episode with an exhausted-sounding summary of earlier shows.)
It doesn’t end there, either. Luisa goes on to have an affair with her step-mother, who turns out to be a notorious criminal who is running a plastic surgery clinic that helps criminals change their appearances; gets confined to a mental hospital; accidentally signs away Rafael’s control of his business; flees the country; and comes back from Peru dating an ultimate fighter. If her love life is fodder for drama and trouble on “Jane the Virgin,” so is everyone else’s. Luisa’s a subversive delight, a character who makes trouble for absolutely everyone, rather than providing sedate learning experiences.
In this context, “Black-ish,” an otherwise sophisticated sitcom, looked a little backwards earlier in the year when the show aired an episode in which Dre (Anthony Anderson) is forced to reckon with his sister Rhonda’s (Raven-Symoné) sexual orientation after she and her girlfriend, Sharon (Elle Young), decide to get married.
It’s not just that the show’s assertion of black homophobia — “Another thing a lot of black people don’t like to talk about is the gay people in their families,” Dre told us in voiceover — relied on a debunked stereotype. It was that Rhonda was a device for a Very Special Episode, complete with a clash of generations between Dre, his mother and his children, and Dre making the endlessly cliche point that people who cite Leviticus to oppose homosexuality frequently ignore plenty of other Bible verses. Even a line as funny as Dre’s friend Charlie’s (Deon Cole) declaration that “I was the best man at he and his life-long roommate Gustavo’s health insurance consolidation party last summer on Fire Island” can’t make the episode something other than what it is.
But where in the past, Rhonda and Sharon might be the only gay women on TV for a long spell, now they’re surrounded by a hilarious, nuanced sisterhood. The rest of TV is moving on to all the other stories you can tell about bisexual women and lesbians. Maybe in its new season, “Black-ish” will catch up to them.