After a few more words and a long embrace, the girls kiss not once, but twice–making this episode a television first on many fronts. It’s the first time a primetime drama has shown two lesbian kisses in one episode. It’s the first time in primetime television that a teenage girl has had a romantic relationship with another girl that isn’t just a one-episode experimentation (unlike, say, Holly Marie Combs’ blacked-out kiss with her friend in Picket Fences in 1993). The producers of Once and Again made it clear that this was not a one-episode experiment by showing the girls happily sneaking a kiss in the kitchen in the next episode, and then holding hands in the series finale.
It’s the first time on a primetime drama that this kind of relationship among teenage girls has been depicted as a relatively positive event. Normally the focus is on the negative repercussions of the girls’ relationship and the problems it causes for their family and friends. The show did explore some of these issues through the parents’ eyes, but overall the emphasis is definitely on the girls’ point of view.
This is only the fourth time a primary character in a television drama has been developed into a lesbian character during the lifetime of the show(the other three are Bianca on All My Children, Willow on Buffy, and Dr. Kerry Weaver on ER). This is in sharp contrast to the large number of boys/men in soap operas or dramas who have gone through this kind of character development.
Despite the much-talked-about kiss, the characters are still only young teenagers and the relationship is commensurate with their age. That is, Jessie and Katie’s relationship isn’t depicted as any more sexual than most heterosexual relationships among young teens on TV – it’s still a lot of notes passed back and forth, emotional outbursts, and gazing into each other’s eyes.
In short: it’s sweet and idealistic.
Jessie’s confusion, Katie’s growing anxiety over Jessie’s avoidance, and the final confrontation between the two girls is skillfully handled and, if the Internet message boards after the show are any indication, true to life for many lesbians and bisexual women who had crushes on other girls in high school.
Although the show suffered from last-place ratings for months (in part due to the fact that ABC has changed its time slot seven times in the last three years), the “Gay/Straight Alliance” episode garnered record-breaking ratings for the show and the press was almost all positive, with very little backlash–only one station refused to run the episode. A big improvement over the controversy that ensued when Ellen Degeneres’ character came out on Ellen in 1997.
Unfortunately, the series went back to its usual lackluster ratings for the next few episodes, putting the final nail in the coffin for the show, which has been canceled by ABC. The relationship between the two girls took a backseat to other storylines in the next few episodes, and since they unexpectedly turned out to be the last of the series, the Jessie/Katie storyline could not be pursued further as originally planned.
Which means besides losing one of the higher-quality dramas on television period, we’ll also be losing a unique and powerful portrayal of lesbian/bisexual relationships on television.