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Hallmark, Lifetime, others embrace LGBTQ holiday romance

Cheesy seasonal fare becomes more inclusive at last

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Christmas House, gay news, Washington Blade
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star in ‘Happiest Season.’ (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

As we move firmly into November, there’s no escaping the fact that holiday season 2020 is upon us – and with the election result and news of a vaccine breakthrough, it feels like we might feel OK about celebrating this year, after all.

Making that easier for us all, of course, is the annual influx of holiday viewing fare that has already begun showing up on our screens, right on cue, to help us get in the mood. For LGBTQ+ audiences, that has traditionally meant having to settle for getting our fix of seasonal spirit vicariously through stories about straight people – but giving us even more reason to celebrate, this time around, is a plethora of inclusive options in which, at long last, we get to see our queer romantic holiday fantasies played out without having to filter them through a heteronormative lens.

Probably the most significant of these new entries – from the standpoint of cultural politics, at least – is “The Christmas House,” which comes amid the heavy slate of holiday-themed romantic movies from the Hallmark Channel, and represents a seismic shift at the formerly conservative network by placing a loving same-sex couple at the center of its warm and fuzzy storyline. Starring out gay actor Jonathan Bennett (best known as high school heartthrob Aaron Samuels in 2004’s “Mean Girls”), it focuses on a gay couple trying to adopt their first child, and co-stars Robert Buckley, Ana Ayora, Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence.

To recognize why “The Christmas House” (which premieres Nov. 22) is as meaningful as it is, it’s necessary to look back at Christmas 2019. A lot has happened since then, but if you prod your memory, you’ll likely recall the debacle that took place when Hallmark caved to pressure from right-wing homophobic activists (particularly the misleadingly named “One Million Moms,” a front for known hate group the American Family Association) and pulled several ads for the wedding planning website Zola over the inclusion of a lesbian couple.

The backlash from the LGBTQ+ community and its advocates was swift and profound, and a week later the ads were reinstated, with Hallmark vowing to work with GLAAD on a plan to move forward with more inclusive programming. It was an unequivocal victory in the “culture wars,” made even more sweet by the context of a flagrantly anti-LGBTQ political administration and the false perception of legitimacy bestowed upon homophobic social attitudes that it enabled.

For proof that the climate had changed – even before last week’s election – one only has to look at the words of Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming for Hallmark, whose statement when “The Christmas House” was announced late last month as part of the network’s seasonal lineup opened by saying, “Our holiday table is bigger and more welcoming than ever.”

It might have the ring of carefully manufactured corporate-speak, but that sentence still represents the culmination of a decades-long struggle – and while not every member of the LGBTQ+ crowd may be excited about being represented in the kind of feel-good fare that straight couples have been enjoying together since forever, we can all still look at the fact that it’s finally happening as an important milestone worthy of celebration – though it’s worth noting that One Million Moms has another homophobic petition circulating in protest of this one, too.

Hallmark isn’t the only cable titan unveiling its first same-sex Christmas romance this year; the Lifetime Channel, similarly known for being a family-friendly seasonal juggernaut, is dropping “The Christmas Set-Up,” which stars two actors (Ben Lewis and Blake Lee) who are not only openly gay, but are an actual couple in real life. While the network last year aired “Twinkle All the Way,” which featured a same-sex kiss between two supporting characters, this time they are putting the gay love story front and center.

This one follows Hugo, a New York lawyer (Lewis), whose matchmaking mom (played by Fran Drescher) decides to set him up with Patrick (Lee), his old high school friend – and secret crush. According to the synopsis, things go smoothly between the two men at first, but they take a dramatic turn when (in true made-for-TV romance fashion) Hugo gets a promotion that comes with a relocation to London, forcing him to choose between his career and the man of his dreams. It also stars Ellen Wong (“G.L.O.W”) as Hugo’s best friend.

“The Christmas Set-Up” represents Lifetime’s efforts to bolster its own reputation for diversity and inclusion, in a Christmas lineup that also features the network’s first movie centered on an Asian-American family, “A Sugar & Spice Holiday.” In a statement made in September, when Lifetime’s holiday slate was announced, head of programming Amy Winter said, “The world we create on camera should reflect the world we live in.”

She went on to add, “Our hope with these inclusive films and others is that people will see themselves while enjoying universally relatable holiday romances.”

“The Christmas Set-Up” won’t drop until Dec. 12, but for fans of gay romance, it should be well worth the wait.

It’s laudable that these once-resistant cable networks have opened up their programming to include more diverse representation, of course; but while we have been waiting for them to get on board, we should not forget that streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu have already been leading the charge for quite some time. Both of them continue that tradition this season with LGBTQ-centric holiday offerings of their own.

While Netflix doesn’t have a specifically LGBTQ-centered title coming for the holiday season, it is bringing us “Dash & Lily,” based on the popular YA romance book series by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, which includes queer characters – not to mention the non-holiday-themed Ryan Murphy adaptation of the Broadway musical, “The Prom.” 

Hulu, however, is putting LGBTQ love in the spotlight with “Happiest Season,” a romantic comedy from director Clea Duvall, who also co-wrote with Mary Holland.

Featuring two queer icons (Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis) in the leads, and yet another (Dan Levy) in prominent support, Duvall’s film revolves around girlfriends Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Davis), and Abby’s plan to propose at the annual Christmas dinner held at Harper’s family (Davis) home. When Abby arrives for the big night, she discovers that not only is Harper’s family ignorant of their relationship, they don’t even know that Harper is gay, prompting her to question how well she knows the person she’s planning on spending the rest of her life with.

That synopsis might give the impression that “Happiest Season” is more a soul-searching downer than you might want from holiday-themed romance, but official descriptions assure us that this latest lesbian-themed Hulu Original is “a holiday romantic comedy that hilariously captures the range of emotions tied to wanting your family’s acceptance, being true to yourself, and trying not to ruin Christmas.” And if you are enthusiastic to see the movie – which premieres Nov. 25 – you are in good company. Its star, Stewart, said in a statement: “I think I’ve wished to see a gay Christmas rom-com my whole life.”

Many would say – in this case, at least – that K-Stew speaks for us all.

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Check out final season of ‘Grace and Frankie’ — it ends well

Groundbreaking show highlights queer, straight elders

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Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are wrapping their groundbreaking series. (Photo by Melissa Moseley; courtesy Netflix)

They make up a fake Jewish holiday (M’Challah) to avoid seeing their friends, lie to their kids about killing their bunny, obsess over playing John Adams in a (very gay) community theater production of the musical “1776” and create vibrators that glow in the dark. Their children sell their house out from under them and make them wear panic alerts.

These people might well creep you out in real life.

But, thankfully, they’re the funny and engaging characters on “Grace and Frankie,” the series, whose seventh and final season has recently dropped on Netflix.

The  show, starring Lily Tomlin, 82, (Frankie) and Jane Fonda, 84, (Grace) as two hetero elders whose husbands (Martin Sheen, 81 as Robert and Sam Waterston, 81, as Sol) leave them to marry each other, is, deservedly, Netflix’s longest-running series.

In 2019, there were 54.1 million people in the United States over 65, according to a Administration for Community Living of the U.S. Department of Human Services report. Elders, the study says, are expected to make up 2l.6 percent of this country’s population by 2040.

There are nearly three million (2.7 million) LGBTQ people over aged 50 in the U.S. and 1.1 million queer elders 65 and older in this country, according to a 2017 Movement Advancement Project and SAGE report.

Yet aside from “Transparent,” few TV series (broadcast, cable or streaming) have featured, let alone, been centered around, older queers.

“Grace and Frankie” is the rare series that’s focused on the lives of elders (hetero and queer). Unlike some shows that showcase older people, it’s been mostly entertaining, even thought provoking, rather than dull or didactic throughout its run.

Set in San Diego, “Grace and Frankie” throughout its seasons has told the story of how Frankie and Grace have created a life of their own as Robert and Sol have entered a new chapter of their lives as a same-sex couple. 

Frankie, Grace, Robert and Sol, who are in their 70s, are affluent. Robert and Sol are successful divorce lawyers. Grace has run a flourishing cosmetics company. Frankie is a new-agey artist who teaches art to ex-convicts.

When Robert and Sol say that they’re leaving them to wed each other because same-sex marriage has become legal in California, Frankie says she’s done a fundraiser for that.

The beach house where Grace and Frankie live is breathtakingly gorgeous. Yet these characters encounter the indignities and dilemmas of aging from learning about social media to coming out in late life to memory loss to end-of-life decisions.

Grace and Frankie run up against the condescension that older women often face. Yet though these are serious concerns, “Grace and Frankie” hasn’t been a downer. 

In one episode, as I’ve written before in the Blade, Grace and Frankie, though they’re practically jumping in front of his face, can’t get a store’s sales clerk to notice them. Because he’s paying so much attention to a young woman. Frankie gives up and steals a pack of cigarettes. If “you can’t see me,” Frankie says, “you can’t stop me.”

In season two, their friend Babe (Estelle Parsons), who is terminally ill, tells Frankie and Grace that she wants them to help her end her life. Though it’s difficult emotionally for them, the women give their friend Babe a good-bye party that’s joyous without being maudlin.

Robert and Sol deal with Robert being in the early stages of dementia. This narrative is touching, but not sappy. Though you should have a tissue in hand for Robert and Sol’s elevator moment in the show’s finale.

Like many old people, the characters have their ups and downs in relating to their adult children. These off-spring from Brianna (June Diane Raphael), a 21st century Cruella de Vil, to Bud (Baron Vaughn), the often wrong-headed “good son,” would try any elder’s soul. 

The main pleasure of “Grace and Frankie” is watching Tomlin and Fonda. The two forces of nature, friends since their “9 to 5″ days, make you laugh and cry with the BFFs Grace and Frankie.

TV series, like everything, have to end. Check out “Grace and Frankie.” It ends well.

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New trailer gives first glimpse into new ‘Queer as Folk’

The highly-anticipated return looks poised to make some welcome improvements as it reinvents the beloved series for a new era

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Courtesy of PEACOCK

HOLLYWOOD – Depending on who you ask, the soon-to-be-dropped reimagining of “Queer as Folk” could well be the biggest LGBTQ television event – or the biggest mistake – of the year.

The groundbreaking original British version of the series, created and written by Russell T. Davies in 1999 (decades before his recent triumph with “It’s A Sin” introduced him to a new generation of queer viewers), has already had an American adaptation in 2000, and each of these installments has its own legion of fans – many of whom have expressed their qualms (to put it mildly) over the entire idea of a new reboot.

That, however, hasn’t stopped Davies from joining forces with writer/director/creator Stephen Dunn (“Closet Monster”) to executive produce one for Peacock. 

Shade from old-school fans aside, the highly-anticipated return of the franchise looks poised to make some welcome improvements as it reinvents the beloved series for a new era. This time, the story promises to deliver a much more diverse assortment of characters than the group of predominantly white gay men featured by its predecessors, with a story centered on a group of LGBTQ friends in New Orleans as their lives are transformed in the aftermath of a recent tragedy.

The new iteration also scores points by employing queer actors to portray all its queer roles – resulting in an impressive lineup of names on its cast list including Ryan O’Connell (“Special”), Johnny Sibilly (“Pose”), Devin Way (“Grey’s Anatomy’), Jesse James Keitel (“Alex Strangelove”), Fin Argus, Candace Grave, Benito Skinner, and Juliette Lewis, and even Kim Cattrall as a “martini-soaked, high society Southern debutante with trailer park roots.” 

Of his reason for getting on board a new adaptation of his show, Davies says, “I’m very proud of what we achieved in 1999, but in queer years, that was a millennium ago! As a community, we’ve radicalized, explored, opened up, and found new worlds – with new enemies and new allies – and there was so much to be said.

Stephen pitched a brand new version of ‘Queer as Folk’ with so much imagination, insight, and crucially, joy, that I simply couldn’t resist. I thought it was about time the title belonged to a whole new generation. The 2022 show is more diverse, more wild, more free, more angry – everything a queer show should be.”

As for Dunn, he explains, “I wanted to create a new groundbreaking version of this show for this moment. Our new ‘Queer as Folk’ is set in New Orleans — one of the most unique queer communities in North America – and I am immensely proud that the new series is comprised of an electric ensemble of fresh characters that mirror the modern global audience.

If there’s one person who is able to see ‘Queer as Folk’ and feel less alone, or who now feels more supported and seen, our job is done. In the true spirit of the original, our show doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of our community, but above all else, the series is about people who live vibrant, vital, unapologetically queer lives.” 

Jacklyn Moore, who co-wrote the new series with Dunn and Executive Produced alongside him and Davies, adds, “I believe deeply in the power of storytelling to make people feel seen, but all too often I feel as though queer and trans representation in art is limited to extremes. We are either shown as saintly heroes bravely surviving a bigoted society or two-dimensional queer-coded villains that feel airdropped in from some previous era. With ‘Queer as Folk,’ we aimed to depict queer characters who live in the messy middle. People who are complicated. Who are funny and caring and flawed and sometimes selfish, but still worthy of love. Still worthy of narrative. As a trans woman, I’m excited to take steps to move past telling stories that seem to just be arguing for our basic humanity. My hope is that Queer as Folk is one such step.”

We’re sure we speak for the rest of the eagerly-waiting fans when we say that we all hope that, too. We can all find out together when Peacock begins streaming the new “Queer as Folk” on June 9.

Queer as Folk | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

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Omar, Netflix’s Elite, & Queer Palestinian representation

With valid critiques of Elite aside, the show provides a monumental step forward in combating both racism and homophobia

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Elite (2018)/Netflix

By Sa’ed Atshan | ATLANTA – Elite, the Spanish Netflix original series released in 2018, has now become a worldwide sensation. Created by Carlos Montero and Dario Madrona, Elite follows the lives of teenagers and classmates at Las Encinas, a fictional private school for wealthy children from Spain and other countries.

There are several students from lower socio-economic backgrounds on full scholarships, and the series explores their intersecting experiences in the community. Over the course of the five existing seasons, taboos are boldly displayed on screen: from racy sexuality, to rape, abortion, drugs, alcohol, crime, murder, and corruption.

While this may be too much for many viewers, the provocative themes, attractive actors, love triangles, extensive scenes of partying, compelling cinematography, and the psychological thriller aspects of the series have galvanized fans in Europe and beyond. Merely a month after its release, Netflix revealed that Elite was streamed by over 20 million accounts. It has since secured a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has become one of the most successful shows globally. 

Alongside the superficial elements of this show lies a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the central characters’ inner worlds and the profound issues with which they grapple. This includes the salience of class and inequality in society, the power of education for social mobility, immigration, racism, and xenopohobia, the role of law in attaining or evading justice, feminism and the struggle for women’s rights, the prevalence of internalized and external homophobia, the command of technology, social media, and surveillance on our lives, and the effects on young people of having to grow up and mature too quickly. 

I was particularly captivated by the character of Omar, played by a Spanish actor with the same first name: Omar Ayuso. While many of the characters who appear in the earlier seasons do not return, Omar is present for all five seasons thus far, becoming central to the overarching narrative.

His Palestinian background is emphasized in the script and on screen and this is huge for the mainstreaming of Palestinians in Western popular media. Omar’s gayness is also clearly highlighted, bringing queer Palestinian lives to the screen in a formidable manner. 

While Omar Ayuso was not one of the most experienced actors and is not the most talented of the actors in this series, his character undergoes a transformation that is powerful and compels audiences. His dark features are handsome, with a signature unibrow, and his attire becomes more and more colorful and expressive, and his bodily comportment more comfortable, as he grows more secure in his own skin. 

We learn that Omar comes from the Shanaa family and is the son of Palestinian Muslim immigrants to Spain who own a small grocery store outside of Madrid. One of his sisters ran away from home to escape their conservative parents and his other sister, Nadia, is also a central character in Elite.

Omar and Nadia’s father is overbearing. Like their mother, Nadia wears the hijab. The mother is soft-spoken and unassuming in many ways, yet Nadia is a force to be reckoned with who aspires to balance pleasing her family with being true to herself. Nadia is brilliant and academically-driven, earning a scholarship to Las Encinas, even as Omar is distracted initially with drug-dealing and working for his family’s business.

After coming out as gay to himself, his family, and the broader community, he movies out and severs ties with his parents, secures work as a bartender, and receives a scholarship to attend Las Encinas. Omar embraces his sexuality and finds a way to lead a life that feels authentic. 

Elite challenges the Islamophobia of Spanish and Western societies, representing both the homophobia that Omar must endure alongside the racism that he experiences as an Arab in Europe. Spain’s long history with the Moors, the Inquisition, and modern migration from North Africa has made its relationship to the Middle East and Islam quite fraught.

The show does not romanticize Omar’s Palestinian immigrant family and it captures the even more dramatic delinquencies of many Spanish and European families. The audience cannot help but juxtapose how Omar’s parents desperately try to preserve notions of tradition, ethics, and honor from their homeland of Palestine amidst a broader landscape of decadence and moral decay in Western contexts.

Omar disavows elements of both the former and latter, while embracing elements of each, and he emerges as a moral compass in the show. His integrity and compassion are palpable and at one point he articulates an aspiration to become a social worker in the future. 

The love that Omar shares with his serious boyfriend, Ander, is beautifully portrayed as well. Though they certainly grapple with their own set of challenges, the chemistry and soulfuness between them is one of the highlights of the show.

Elite (2018)/Netflix

After Netflix posted a romantic photo of Omar and Ander on their Instagram page, it was met with homophobic comments, and Netflix laudably responded simply with a chain of rainbow emojis. 

With valid critiques of Elite aside, the show provides a monumental step forward in combating both racism and homophobia. Netflix has done the global queer Palestinian community right by developing the character of Omar in this manner. Whether or not he appears in season six is yet to be announced, but even if not, he will have already captured countless hearts and minds.

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Sa’ed Atshan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020)

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