“People came for the queer and stayed for the folk.” ~ Peter Paige
Say you’re writing a pilot episode for a show about a group of LGBT+ friends. Where is it set? How diverse is your cast? How many principal characters do you want to introduce up front? And finally who is your protagonist? Say you’re rebooting a classic show like Queer as Folk or The L Word. Will you bring back old characters or introduce new ones? I decided to take a look at the pilot episodes of several LGBT+ television shows and web series. Any good pilot will tell us who the protagonist is, what they want and how they’ll pursue it.
Will & Grace (1998-2006, 2017-). There’s something deeply sad about Will Truman. When we met him in 1998 he was begging his friend Grace to watch television with him. She turns him down to spend the night with her boyfriend. She’ll spend the rest of the episode interrupting Will and his other friends, at home and work, to complain about her boyfriend. He never turns her down. When he criticizes the boyfriend himself she tells him to go to hell.
Will & Grace introduced America to funny, non-threatening homosexuals. It deserves praise for that. But it also kept Will in a rut while other gay media was introducing vibrant, assertive characters. The 2006 finale gave them spouses, children and independence. The 2017 reboot robbed them of this to trap them in their old apartment repeating old patterns. It was sad when they were in their 30’s and even sadder in their 50’s.
“You want me to be alone like you.”
Decisive action in the pilot: Will tells Grace her boyfriend is wrong for her.
The Bad Boy
Queer as Folk. UK (1999-2000). Vince is trapped in Will Truman’s rut. Nights in front of the telly when he’s not running errands for his crush Stuart. Stuart’s someone new. An angry sex addict hunting for regular hook ups. The pilot establishes their dynamic, then breaks it apart. Stuart hooks up with a 15 year old twink while his lesbian friend gives birth to his child. Now Stuart’s got responsibilities and Vince will have to find a life of his own. I didn’t like Stuart in 1999 but now I appreciate his take no prisoners attitude. His American counterpart, Brian Kinney, would behave far worse in the remake (2000-2005), but Brian did it with a sneer while Stuart did it with a smile. (Though a modern reboot will probably want to cut the statutory rape.)
“Why doesn’t anyone stop me? It’s not my fault. They should stop me.”
Decisive action: Stuart takes a risk by bringing his hook up with him to the hospital. It opens the door to an intimacy he hasn’t had with previous tricks.
The Outs (2012-2016). Jack sets up a series of passionless Grindr hook ups and sabotages his ex-boyfriend’s date. His ex, Mitchell, is an uptight control freak who has no patience for Jack’s behavior. The pilot makes Mitchell the more sympathetic character, though the season as a whole would focus on Jack’s redemption arc. You’ll get a better sense of the shows flavor if you stick around for the second episode.
Decisive action: Jack gives Mitchell’s phone number to a trick, sabotaging his date in the process.
Kuntergrau (2016-2017). German web series. Jan’s miserable. He confides in his friends, the virginal Leopold and the promiscuous Marcel. His boyfriend Noah wants to engage in S&M, with or without him. By the end of the pilot Jan’s given it a try, but never wants to do it again. As the series continues each of the friends will find a partner who pushes them out of their comfort zones. Some will benefit from the experience. Others will not. Jan’s quite the prickly pear but his friends balance him out. Episodes are short and easy to binge.
“I told you to shut your filthy mouth.”
Decisive action: Jan ties Noah up.
The Closet Case
The L Word (2004-2009). Pilot, part 1, introduced two potential protagonists. Jenny’s moved in with her boyfriend but feeling bi-curious attraction to her lesbian neighbors. Tina wants a baby but her sperm donor is sterile and her workaholic partner is losing interest. Which one is the protagonist? Jenny, but if you only watched part 1 you wouldn’t be sure. There are 6 more characters introduced and a surprising amount of straight sex in an overstuffed episode. Not everyone had time to make an impression but its clear Jenny won’t be faithful to her boyfriend for much longer.
“I’ve opened up your world.”
Decisive action: Jenny accepts an invitation to Marina’s party.
Skam (2015-2017). Each season of this teen drama focuses on a different character. The season three premiere gives us Isak, a closeted teen. Isak kisses a teen girl, Emma, at a party to impress his guy friends. Soon she’s calling herself his girlfriend and interrupting his chats with Even, a handsome transfer student. Characters and conflict are quickly established. Actor Tarjei Sandvik Moe shows us the terrified kid beneath Isak’s scrappy demeanor, keeping him sympathetic despite his bad behavior. The show has been remade in multiple countries. The actors have different takes on the character but this first episode gets us on their side fast.
“Why is everyone calling me gay?”
Decisive action: Isak seduces Emma with a confidence that he lacks around Even. He knows how to stay in the closet. He doesn’t know how to leave it.
Noah’s Arc (2005-2006). Noah’s an LA screenwriter who talks in a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice and chases after a “straight” guy. The opening credits tell us he’s a “romantic.” They also tell us his friends are sassy, uptight and a player respectively. They have debates about monogamy, sleeping with co-workers and adding gay characters to screenplays. The pilot establishes that the series will show positive representation despite some cringey dialogue. Logo has posted the full series on their YouTube channel.
“I was always taught to follow my passions.”
Decisive action: Noah’s attempt at seducing his “straight” crush.
The Horizon (2009-2017). Australian web series. Jake, a twink, moves to Sydney, befriends a drag queen and hooks up with two manipulative guys. Wilma, the drag queen, has the comedy and would remain the show’s conscience for all 8 seasons. Jake would be played by three actors and fade into the background as more interesting characters took over. The acting in the pilot is poor. If you didn’t know about the cast changes you’d be surprised to hear the show ran 64 episodes.
“I can’t go home still a virgin.”
Decisive action: Moving to Sydney, coming out, and moving in with a new beau. Jake’s taking a lot of big steps.
Cucumber (2015). When Henry’s partner proposes he flees, burning his bridges behind him. When his ex faces a crisis he ignores him, focusing on pursuit of a shallow twink. The pilot established Henry’s narcissism, self-loathing and casual cruelty. I gave up on this bile filled show a few episodes in. While Eastsiders’ Cal tries to crawl out of the muck Henry’s content to wallow in it.
“I’m officially giving up. As of this moment the modern world has left me behind.”
Decisive action: Lots. Henry destroys everything in his path to escape his routine.
Eastsiders (2012-2017). Cal’s partner is having an affair so he drowns his sorrows in alcohol with his high maintenance BFF (Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu). His partner, Thom, takes the active role in the pilot ending his affair and struggling to make amends. Still, Cal’s vulnerability and willingness to forgive got me on his side early on. Cal would become more active in later episodes as he struggled out of the depression he’d sunk into.
“Maybe I kind of hate you right now Thom. That doesn’t mean that I want to break up.”
Decisive action: Cal chooses to forgive Thom, though it’s clearly costing him a lot.
The Man Child
Please Like Me (2013-2016). 20 year old Josh has been stuck in arrested development. The pilot shatters his world when his girlfriend dumps him, a handsome hunk kisses him and his mother attempts suicide. Josh is emotionally stunted. He uses gallows humor to cope with bad situations and endears himself in the process. Josh Thomas creates such an idiosyncratic character that the supporting cast feels a little dull by comparison. Still it’s fun to watch his reluctant journey into semi-adult hood.
“I can never really trust when someone that good looking is in to me.”
Decisive action: Josh reaches out to comfort a crying stranger. It’s a big gesture for such a closed off character.
Looking (2014-2016). Patrick and his friends sabotaged their relationships and careers. The pilot episode established their habit of saying stupid things and suffering the consequences. Audiences hated the privileged, self-loathing protagonists and ratings plummeted. The second season sanded off their rough edges and dialed up the romance. The show became more fun but less interesting. If you could sit through the cringe you’d be rewarded with lovely cinematography, a skilled supporting cast and two truly wonderful bottle episodes. Patrick never really grew on me but I loved audience favorites Dom and Doris.
“I don’t know if either of us are very good at being who we think we are.”
Decisive action: Patrick attempts to break out of his shell by visiting the park to cruise for sex. Once he’s approached he flees, establishing his two steps forward, one step back approach to life.
Of the protagonists in the pilots above
- 3 Live in California
- 2 Live in New York
- 4 Attend a loud party
- 5 Gossip with a straight friend
- 5 Meet their primary love interest
- 3 Have sex
2019 will see the first seasons of Special and Now Apocalypse, the second season of Pose, the eleventh season of Will and Grace, the reboot of Tales of the City and multiple remakes of Skam. In addition, LGBT+ supporting characters are appearing in record numbers on TV and Netflix. Will you be watching? What stories are you still waiting for?
I included some of my favorite web series above, but you can check out OUT.com’s Ultimate LGBT Web Series Guide here.
Read more reviews of LGBT+ media here.
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