Sunday, July 11, 2004

Gay-marriage debate fuels Showtime drama

By Lynn Elber / The Associated Press

While the issue of gay marriage has received its share of television news and talk show time, it has been largely absent from TV series - until now.

Showtime's Queer as Folk charges into the debate in the season's last two episodes, in which partners Michael and Ben (Hal Sparks and Robert Gant) ponder marriage and decide it's right for them.

But their joyful, legal Canadian wedding founders on the U.S. prohibition against same-sex unions.

The scene (10 p.m. today) in which Ben proposes is superficially mundane, with familiar words of commitment and a ring. Whether the gesture is seen as promising or unsettling is up to the viewer; those involved in the show hope it's the former.

"Michael Novotny, you are the man I've been looking for all my life," college professor Ben Bruckner says.

"I'm so very blessed to have found you. Which is why I am asking you to do me the honor of accepting my hand in marriage."

Michael, a comic book creator who's usually an optimist, is unsettled by the proposal and shares his feelings with a friend, Brian (Gale Harold).

When cynical Brian derides the idea of homosexuals needing marriage or society's blessing, Michael protests: "It's also our God-given right to have everything straight people have. Because we're as much human beings as they are."

"You're a writer. Rewrite the story," Brian replies.

Series producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman are eager to do some revision of their own on attitudes toward gay marriage in America, especially as the stakes rise with proposal of a constitutional ban.

They created the story for tonight's episode (along with Shawn Postoff, who wrote the teleplay) and wrote next Sunday's finale in which Michael poignantly questions whether his Canadian marriage, discounted back home in Pittsburgh, meant anything.

Stephen Macias, national entertainment media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, GLAAD, previewed the episodes.

"I thought they dealt with the issue very well, in a way that people watching the show can relate to, straight or gay," said Macias. "Queer as Folk has always been groundbreaking and they continue in that tradition."

Michael's entrenched view of marriage as unattainable reflects real-life gay attitudes, Lipman said. But that's changing with developments such as the Massachusetts court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.

"All of a sudden someone says, 'Yes, this could be part of your history.' ... It really is a profound thing for gay people," Lipman said.

Added Cowen: "All these very large social, political, religious issues ultimately boil down to the lives of two people who want to get married. I just can't get it into my head that two people wanting to get married, two people wanting to say 'I do,' could threaten a country."

Cowen and Lipman, longtime personal and professional partners, have challenged society's attitudes before, most notably in the breakthrough 1985 TV film An Early Frost, about AIDS.

They had to pick their way through broadcast network apprehension and timidity in writing the movie, which starred Aidan Quinn as a young man who discloses his illness and homosexuality to family and friends.

Even with caution and not dramatic eloquence as the guiding principle, the pair managed to write an affecting film. Although a show on a cable channel doesn't draw the audience of one on a network, Cowen and Lipman believe Queer as Folk can influence the debate.

GLAAD's Macias notes that a network series prepared to address the subject of gay marriage, ABC's Boston-set sitcom It's All Relative, was canceled. It's unlikely the issue will be part of another broadcast show: None deal regularly with a same-sex couple's relationship, he said.

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