There’s a certain kind of frustration for LGBT people that comes along with being represented on television. Every time a queer character is at the center of a show, the creators and starts go to great lengths to let prospective viewers know that theirs is “not a gay show.” It’s happened with Will & Grace, The New Normal, Looking, Sue Perkins‘s coming out comedy Heading Out, and now NBC’s new series One Big Happy joins the pack. Executive Producer Ellen DeGeneres was at TCA for the NBC panel on the show, where she emphasized that while her sitcom, Ellen, was about being gay and coming out, she doesn’t see One Big Happy as a show about a lesbian.
“Yes, there’s a lesbian character, but it’s a really funny show,” Ellen said. That’s all I wanted to do was put out really funny material and smart and thought provoking. If this is thought provoking and helps people open their minds a little bit and see a multi-racial couple and to see a lesbian character and to see a guy that is her best friend that has a relationship that that’s a whole other story. There’s so much to this show, so I don’t focus on that. I just look at it as a funny show.”
Which begs the question, what is a gay show? Perhaps Queer as Folk and The L Word are two series that never fought the stigma, but also had viewerships large enough to keep them from being too niche, which is likely what TV execs fear most. In 2015, we have more LGBT characters than ever being represented in television shows of most genres, from reality series on basic cable major roles on networks aimed at teens like ABC Family. But even shows like Pretty Little Liars and Glee have their lesbian leads as part of an ensemble cast that also has as much (if not more) emphasis on the heterosexual pairings. One Big Happy boasting a major lesbian lead (played by Elisha Cuthbert) is defending the same kind of stigma that Will & Grace did on the same network when it premiered in 1998. While a lot has changed in 17 years, especially in terms of acceptance, tolerance and steps toward equality, it seems we are still fighting to have something that is both for us, by us and that can also be seen as enjoyable for the mainstream.
One Big Happy is not “about” lesbians—that’s true. Where as the premise of The L Word was “stories about the lives and loves of lesbians and bisexuals in Los Angeles,” One Big Happy is a comedy and a little more clearly-defined. Elisha Cuthbert’s Lizzie is the only regular lesbian character—the only gay one at all. While she does have exes pop up (in the first four episodes given to press for review, we meet one ex-girlfriend), Lizzie’s life is otherwise not entrenched in any kind of lesbian culture. Her best friend is a guy named Luke (Nick Zano), who she’s known for years and has planned to have a baby with since they’re both 30 and single. When we meet the friends in the pilot, they are trying to get pregnant (through in vitro fertilization) but not having luck just yet. However, as comedic timing has it, Lizzie finds out she’s knocked up just moments after Luke has not only met and fallen for British bombshell Prudence (Kelly Brook), but married her, too.
Lizzie and Luke’s larger friend circle include an interracial couple, Leisha and Roy (played by Rebecca Cory and Chris Williams) and Marcus (Brandon Smith). Lizzie frequently points out and jokes about her sexuality, which isn’t so different from how Ellen treated her own post-coming out on Ellen back in 1997.
Ellen’s influence on One Big Happy cannot be understated, as she has made a huge impact on creator/writer Liz Feldman‘s personal life and professional career.
“I think what we’re trying to do is almost pick up where [Ellen] left off in a way, except it’s 18 years later, so I think the world is ready for it on a new level,” Liz said during the TCA panel. She also shared how inspired she was by Ellen’s coming out, and how she was “mildly obsessed with Ellen growing up.”
“I’m downplaying it,” she said. “I started as a stand up comic also and I was absolutely enamored of her. Then, as I mentioned but to go a little further, when she came out on TV in 1997, it really changed my life, and I decided then that I really wanted to figure out a way to work with her. I’ve been really lucky. Actually, I met her a few years later in 1998, and I went up to her. She was doing a signing, and I went up to her and I said, ‘You’re Carol Burnett and I’m Vicki Lawrence, but you don’t know that yet.'”
Liz eventually wrote for Ellen’s talk show for several years before leaving to work on Two Broke Girls. One Big Happy came to fruition after Liz had a pivotal change happen in her own relationship with her straight male best friend, and writing about it was the only way she knew how to handle it.
“We were planning on having a baby together. We’ve been friends our whole lives and then he met the love of his life and that changed the course of our lives,” Liz said. “Honestly, it was so difficult to deal with it when it happened, the only thing I knew how to do was write something about it. So that’s where this comes from. This comes from a real place. It’s not coming from any sort of agenda, what can we do to put another lesbian on that television. It’s coming from the truth.”
Ellen also said she didn’t necessarily see the show as “groundbreaking.”
“I really honestly don’t think about things like that. I don’t. I don’t wake up in the morning and think (stretching) ‘I’m a lesbian,'” Ellen said. She also said her production company doesn’t seek out gay-specific material, and she truly doesn’t have any kind of agenda, which is a topic she also dealt with on her show last week when a homophobic pastor accused of her trying to lure young girls into lesbianism.
“That’s just a coincidence, obviously, that that guy was so vocal this week. I try not to think about that. I don’t think about it until something like that comes up and I go, ‘Oh, yeah. There are people who don’t like me.’ I don’t really think about it,” she said. “I think that this is first of all, it just happens to be a very funny show. It happens to have a lesbian character in it. It’s not like I formed a production company and said, ‘Bring me all your lesbian scripts.” I think, if anything, if that happened and I was like having to sift through them going, ‘I’m not just going to be a lesbian machine that just turns out stuff.'”
Some people might want Ellen to, in fact, be a lesbian machine, like they might want Liz’s show to be about more than one gay woman. But in all likelihood, it won’t. Ellen’s talk show is always inherently queer because she is out and proud, but it’s not the major discussion topic unless Ellen thinks it should be, like her takedown of the pastor in her monologue last week. One Big Happy will probably follow suit. There are plenty of references to Lizzie’s gayness—both by Lizzie and the people around her—but viewers looking for acts of lesbianism (which is to say, a romance for Lizzie in Season 1), will be waiting a while.
“She’s very difficult, so it’s going to be hard to find anyone that’s going to stay with her. If she somehow normalizes, then she’ll meet a girlfriend,” Ellen said. “Right now she’s too dysfunctional to actually be in a relationship. I think, like, the year 2030 we’re going to have an entire lesbian cast and one token heterosexual, but not yet. We’re not there yet.”
It seems like the definition of a “gay show” is one that has several out characters involved; something that Ellen thinks we won’t have on television for another 15 years. And while some might balk, she could be right in terms of network television. Despite NBC being the home to LGBT-friendly shows like Friends, E.R., Will & Grace, The New Normal, Smash and Sean Saves the World, all of them have heterosexual characters as the majority, not unlike the world we live in. As queer people, some of us are lucky enough to have many other LGBT-identified people around us—friends, family or chosen family. But there are also people in our community that live in a very straight place, and are hopefully surrounded by at least a few allies.
Does a “gay show” have to meet certain criteria like women kissing or there being two or more LGBT people on screen together at one time? Must it be created, written or produced by a gay/lesbian person? How do shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent fit in? If what lesbian, bi and other queer-identified viewers are looking for on television is depictions of all of our stories, it’s not going to be done in a half-hour multi-cam sitcom, even if it is headed up by Ellen and Liz Feldman. (Out comic Erin Foley is also part of the writing staff.) However that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it or or dislike it for what it is, because what it is is the story of one lesbian character who is having a baby with her best male friend, like Liz Feldman wanted to do in her real (lesbian) life.
Just like Ellen doesn’t wake up thinking “I’m gay,” Liz has also made it clear her life is not relegated to her sexuality. A quote of hers that has made its way onto internet memes speaks to this best:
One Big Happy could be groundbreaking if it’s successful enough to be picked up past its first six episodes, because it would prove a leading lesbian character can work on a network television comedy. Ellen was canceled not long after her coming out in 1997 and that was the last time we’ve seen anyone try. It’s great to see she’s involved with the next generation of representation of lesbians on TV, even if she doesn’t want to call it that. If you look at One Big Happy as more Ellen than L Word, you’ll be able to appreciate it for what it is rather than what it isn’t.
One Big Happy premieres on NBC on Tuesday, March 17 at 9:30/8:30c. Check back soon for more interviews and coverage of One Big Happy at TCA.