AE reader runchaorun tipped me off that Tuesday night’s episode (7.7 "Face Value") of the CBS missing-persons drama Without a Trace included the abduction of a lesbian, Ariana, played by former All My Children star Kelli Giddish.
I’m a fan of Without a Trace in general, and I loved their March 2006 episode "Check Your Head," in which two women who were secretly in love with each other but afraid to admit it are ultimately united.
But this episode … well, the best I can say is that it started off promisingly.
American viewers can watch the first two minutes here:
Ariana is introduced in the opening scene working at a crime scene as a victim’s advocate, after which she disappears. She is casually revealed to be a lesbian a few minutes later when her the FBI agents bring in her girlfriend Val (Kristen Ariza) to question her about whether she knows of anyone who might want to hurt Ariana, including any violent ex-girlfriends (not because lesbians are violent, but because people who choose this line of work have often been victims of abuse themselves).
Val assures the detectives that she has met all of Ariana’s ex-girlfriends, and they’re not violent, but discloses that Ariana’s mother was stabbed to death by her boyfriend when Ariana was young.
They show a flashback of the two women having dinner together, as Val recounts to the agents her efforts to get Ariana to quit her dangerous job to get a graduate degree.
So far, so good. In fact, it all seems quite progressive because of the sheer matter-of-factness with which the writers are treating Ariana’s sexual orientation, and her relationship with Val. There’s no big "reveal" that Ariana is a lesbian, or that Val is her lover; these are just presented as facts that rounded out the character.
But then the writers do something I’ve
never rarely seen them do in seven seasons of the show — they introduce a second, completely unrelated abduction (of a little girl), and back-burner the original case (of the missing lesbian).
Martin (Eric Close) is reluctantly granted permission by their new boss, Clark Medina’s (Steven Weber), to stay on Ariana’s case for a few more hours, but asks for and is denied more help, even when he uncovers evidence that Ariana is in trouble. Eventually we find out that Ariana has bled to death after a physical altercation with a junky, and Martin missed saving her life by only 20 minutes. We never see her killer caught (or even confronted), we only see Val crying with Martin at the end, and Martin’s bitter comment to Medina that made it clear he could have saved her if he’d been given more resources.
Meanwhile, developments in the child kidnapping case are documented in excruciating detail, from the lingering shots of the anxious parents, Jack’s (Anthony LaPaglia) determination to leave no stone unturned to find the abductor, and Medina’s pained expressions as he alternately worries about not finding the little girl and barks at Martin to hurry up and drop the Ariana case. In the end, the little girl is rescued just in the nick of time.
When Medina initially made the decision to take all the agents off Ariana’s case, Jack argued against it, accusing him of "picking the cute little white girl and dumping the lesbian because it has a bit more play in it."
The writers might as well have been talking about themselves.
As the minutes rolled by and the writers devoted less and less time to the search for Ariana, and more and more time to the search for the little girl, I kept thinking there must be a mistake, that surely the writers wouldn’t just drop the lesbian storyline like that. Would they?
Then I remembered — this is primetime broadcast television, and it’s the beginning of a Sweeps period. (OK, officially it starts on Thursday, but close enough.) Of course the show would include a lesbian storyline in the beginning of the episode, then slowly kill it off (along with her).
The lesbian storyline had already served its purpose — drawing in viewers in those crucial first few minutes — so why bother with actually giving it the same attention every other abduction storyline has received on the show, when you could focus on the "cute little white girl" instead? The writers can just let Jack point to the dropped lesbian case (storyline) at the end as proof that Medina’s not fit for this job, and not only will that justify his (the writers’) decision, it’ll actually make him (the writers) look good, by pointing out what a bad decision Medina (the writers) just made. See how neatly that works?
"I’m not the only person who’s going to notice this," Jack warns Medina after accusing him of ignoring the missing lesbian. "It’s going to come back and bite you in the ass."
Unfortunately, that’s where Jack is wrong — lesbians have been missing on primetime broadcast TV for a long time now, and no one ever seems to notice.