“Smash” analysis: Do the right thing, part two–Better gay characters

Julia and Tom out at dinner in “Callbacks”: Credit NBC (official Smash Facebook page)

The pilot of Smash now available in the Moniqueblog Amazon Store!

I’m back with another “Do the right thing”! I’ll say one thing that Smash did wrong last episode, and what was the creepy Julia/Michael (Debra Messing/Will Chase) subplot. How many times does Julia have to say “No” for it to actually mean “No”?! Tom and Lorenzo did a great job explaining why this subplot went down the wrong road when it tried to show the pull-and-tug of an affair by having Julia basically sexually harassed by Michael until she gave in. There are better ways of showing someone finally giving into an affair, whoever wrote that part of the episode.

Anyway, onto something the show’s getting right: varied types of gay men instead of the usual tired stereotype. Even though America is getting more nuanced when it comes to their gay characters, the stereotypes still seem to remain in high demand, which is unfortunate. However, since one of Smash’s goals is to show a real New York with real people behind a real Broadway production, they have to show real gay people, and so far, so good. However, that’s not to say that we’re completely devoid of stereotype symptoms in these characters, but it’s better than a lot of what I’ve seen on basic cable (the keyword in that is basic–I realize The L Word and Queer As Folk and Spartacus: Of Blood and Sand exist. Shoutout to Barca!)

I’ll say that probably the closest character there is to a stereotype might be Tom (Christian Borle), but even writing that is like writing somewhat of a lie. I mean, yes, there is the new stereotype of the Regular Gay Best Friend, which is only slightly above the Flamboyant Gay Best Friend, and one of the few ways Tom fits the stereotype of a Regular Gay Best Friend is through being Julia’s best friend. But that’s where the comparisons end. If Tom truly was a stereotype, we wouldn’t have seen him go on a date, end up in bed with his date (more on that later), and continue to date his lawyer guy. We also wouldn’t see him have emotions, and we do see him vary from being annoyed with Julia to being worried about Ivy (Megan Hilty) to being angry with Derek (Jack Davenport), to being happy when things finally go right, either with casting, his personal life, or the progress of the workshop. He shows real emotions, has goals and expectations, etc. He’s also level-headed, calm, and uses the most common sense between himself and Julia. He’s a fairly complete person, in my book.

Tom during the date with John in “The Cost of Art”. Credit: NBC

The lawyer guy I referenced earlier, John Goodwin (Neal Bledsoe), is completely atypical of a gay stereotype. Granted, he hasn’t had much to say in the episodes he’s been in, but I do think he’s a character that comes with no baggage, if that makes sense. We see that he’s not just a gay person, which is what makes him the most successful gay character on the show, I think. We get a lot of nuance from Tom, but we are also 80% aware throughout the show that he’s gay. That’s especially interesting since the goal of his character is to show a person who is gay, not a Gay Person. The aim of Tom is to show that he’s a human being and his sexuality doesn’t matter at all when it comes to his character. But I think John’s characterization is somehow much more succinct in bringing that point home.

John on the date in “The Cost of Art.” Credit: NBC

The last gay character I’ll touch on is the only openly gay character of color, Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.). He’s an attempt to really buck the stereotype out of the window because he’s a stereotypical “man’s man”–he watches sports, is crude, dresses in gym attire, etc. (Tom being a non-sports watcher, however, is another tick in his “stereotype” box.) Sam also has eyes for Tom, and it’s obvious we’re going to get an “Odd Couple”-type relationship going on. First, there’ll be the “Will Tom choose John or Sam?” subplot, which I feel will get old really fast. However, as it stands, Sam’s doing a good job of showing the world that being gay doesn’t mean you’re not a man. Being gay is just a form of sexuality. There’s tons of stuff I do that is atypical from what some might think a straight girl would do, like occasionally donning a tie or wishing there was menswear for women that looked as crisp and clean as actual menswear. (There’s nothing like a sharp suit.) And to go back to the show, Ellis (Jaime Cepero) is straight, but acts in a way that makes characters like Julia and Tom think he is just unaware of his own sexuality. He could very well be straight, but just acts in a way people deem as atypical. Sexuality is just a small part of a person’s makeup, and it doesn’t define what you like, what you do, or how you live your life. It’s also quite hilarious that Tom is doing a lot of stereotyping himself–he barely suspects Sam is gay because Sam watches sports and doesn’t do any other outward thing that reads as what people might expect.

HOWEVER, the fact that the agenda behind a character like Sam is so apparent, it’s kinda making Sam look like a character that is defined by their sexuality, which is not what you want to happen. In fact, that’s the basis of the gay stereotype in the first place. Of course, with today’s world being what it is, I don’t think society as a whole has moved fast enough to where writers don’t have to spell stuff out to some viewers.

Sam introducing himself to Tom in “Let’s Be Bad”. Credit: NBC

Back to the scene where we see John and Tom sleep together. How annoying is it that we can see Julia get harassed before the extended sex scene between her and Michael and all the times Ivy and Derek sleep together, yet we have to see the aftermath of John and Tom? Can we be fair here? At least, let us see them kiss. Despite what I said earlier about having to spell some stuff out to some viewers, NBC has to realize that the audience this show is marketed towards is–let’s be frank–liberals. Not necessarily “liberals” in the political sense, but people who are highly educated, fairly affluent (if just middle-class), cultured (aside from the various cultures in this show, Smash is about Broadway, one of the cornerstones of  American “cultured” living), aware (civil rights, LGBT rights) and accepting (or, at the very least, tolerant). This audience probably also watched The L Word, Queer As Folk and Spartacus: Of Blood and Sand, which has same-sex sex scenes. I think this audience could handle a sex scene between Tom and John. However, I know NBC wouldn’t allow that because, for some reason, groups like One Million Moms and the Parents Television Council police the nature of shows they probably don’t even watch. Anyway, my gripe is done.

There are a lot of other gay incidental characters in the show, but they are who they are and there’s not really a lot I can say about them. I will say that even though it seems like I’ve found a lot of negatives in these main characters, I really do appreciate them being on television, as it does even out the television landscape as far as gay characterization is concerned.

EDIT 3/19: Tonight’s episode of Smash rectified some of what I was talking about when it came to Tom and John’s relationship–we see them kiss! So, sorry for going HAM on you, NBC. You did good. Now show a make-out scene with someone and Tom and we’ll be copacetic.

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