The Meteoric Rise of TV's Difficult (Gay) Men

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The Meteoric Rise of TV's Difficult (Gay) Men

They’re loud and proud. They’re brassy and sassy. Sometimes they’re even pretty and witty and most definitely gay. They have healthy sex drives and career ambitions. They’re no mere punch lines, though they can sling a zinger like no other. To quote Brett Martin, whose book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution chronicled what we’ve since come to label “prestige TV,” these are “characters whom, conventional wisdom had once insisted, Americans would never allow into their living rooms.” Martin was talking about Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper and the other brooding male antiheroes who dominated conversations about television’s most recent “Golden Age.” But if The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men were the heirs apparent to a Dickensian view of television’s potential, shows like Difficult People, Please Like Me, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Schitt’s Creek have instead taken a Wildean approach to TV storytelling, indulging in prickly protagonists caught in comic situations that nevertheless get at the truth of what it means to be an out gay man in the 21st century.

In a recent guest column for Variety, Difficult People’s Billy Eichner bemoaned how much more work there’s still to be done when it comes to LGBTQ media visibility. One of the things he loves about his character, Billy, is that he’s allowed to be a “fully formed man.” “I’m not neutered in any way, and I’m not just the wacky neighbor or some angel-martyr figure that’s giving everyone else advice. But at the same time I’m not some cartoonishly horny friend of a friend that pops in every once in a while, you know, because gay men love sex so much. I’m all of those things and I’m also sad, and I’m also struggling with my family, struggling with my career, struggling with a lack of self-awareness and narcissism, while also trying to be funny and enjoy life at the same time.”

He fails to mention that Billy is also a bit much: When we first meet him, he’s rejoicing that Carl (Jeffery Self), this guy he’s seeing, retweeted his mean joke about Miles Teller looking like k.d. lang. He immediately admits that while things are going well with him, he worries Carl is sweet. Too sweet. Too kind (“The only kind of Kind I like is Richard Kind,” his friend Julie adds). Billy may very well have been talking about any number of gay male characters in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. From Will & Grace’s titular gay lawyer (Eric McCormack) and Dawson’s Creek’s high school dreamboat, Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith), to Glee’s baby-faced Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and Modern Family’s suburban couple, Mitch and Cam (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet), network TV had begun at the turn of the century to offer positive LGBTQ representation in the form of wholesome and winsome gays who, despite their quirks, were sweet people. Too sweet, perhaps.

This wave of what GLAAD often praised as better and fairer representation was a strategic move against decades’ worth of insidious stereotypes and dangerous profiling. Heavy with the burden of representation, these types of characters became role models to a whole generation that finally saw itself empathetically represented on screen. But that focus on compassionate storytelling meant it’s taken a while for television to tell complicated stories about what Eichner calls fully formed queer persons. Thankfully, TV writers have realized that they need not offer their own spin on dark antihero dramas with queer protagonists. Instead, they’ve created hilarious paeans to the gay fuckup and the self-absorbed diva, to the vain sissy and the mean queen. Better yet, they take them seriously as characters worth exploring, in all their ugly—if fabulous—glory.

Josh Thomas, who created and starred in Please Like Me, was all too happy to anchor his show to a fictionalized version of himself—one who’s crippled by self-doubt and low self-esteem, and who is, as he’s often berated by his friends, not that great of a person sometimes. He needles his boyfriend in front of his parents. He resorts to awkward humor instead of offering comfort to friends and family in times of need. He all but sabotages any good thing that happens to him, thinking he doesn’t deserve it. But those faults are also what make him such an engaging character, though Thomas would bristle at the thought of anyone “relating to” or “identifying with” his fictional alter-ego. Just as he’d done in his stand-up, Thomas’ storytelling doesn’t and needn’t stand as the voice of his generation (or, to quote Lena Dunham, one of Thomas’ most ardent fans, “a voice of a generation.” Instead, he’s allowed to be broken and sullen, quirky and self-defeating, all the while exploring what it means to date as an out gay man in a society that bellows that it gets better, that he should be proud no matter what, even as his life experiences suggest there’s more trouble on the other side of acceptance.

Similarly, Dan Levy’s Schitt’s Creek makes its central queer character, David Rose (Levy), as annoying as he is endearing. The pansexual, black-and-white skirt-wearing son of a wealthy family that finds itself living in the only property they have left (the backwoods town that gives the Canadian sitcom its title) is pitched as a self-absorbed rich boy who can’t even. In his mother’s words, his inability to retain information that doesn’t directly pertain to him might actually require medical attention. Much of the show’s humor comes from that solipsism coming to a head, with sitcom-y plots that require him to do the one thing he hates most: connecting with others around him. Just like Josh’s quips in Please Like Me (“Pedestrians make me fucking furious. Why is that girl smiling? Who does she think she is?”), David’s zingers are one of the many reasons Schitt’s Creek is one of the most quotable comedies of the moment. Whether he’s doling out advice (“Just watch a season of Girls and do the opposite of what they do”) or bolstering his outdoor cred (“I could not be more at one with nature. I do Coachella every year”), David’s high-strung personality makes him obnoxious in the best way.

This type of character—once reduced to grating, over-the-top BFFs—is now being explored not in spite of his stereotypical features, but through them. Take Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess). The wannabe Broadway actor, who styles Barbies when he’s mad, runs on gay time and suffers no white nonsense, has, for the better part of the Netflix comedy, managed to turn the sassy best friend role on its head. No matter how self-involved, vain, lazy or otherwise ill-suited to helping Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), Titus’ cutting zingers and catchphrases have made him the show’s not-so-secret weapon. But in its third season, after a tragic encounter with Dionne Warwick at sea, Titus is forced to come to terms with his own shortcomings. Looking back at what he’s done with his life and career, he concludes that while he’s often seen himself as the hero, he’s actually been the villain (“maybe that’s why I love capes so much,” he muses). He’s obviously being intentionally melodramatic. But there’s novelty in leaning into creating such wildly and hilariously difficult queer men.

Where prestige TV continues to privilege brooding, male-centered dramas, there’s a deliciousness to seeing queer storytellers embrace humor (whether dark or absurdist, silly or campy) as the central kernel on which to hang their narratives. It’s also quite telling that the humor in shows like Please Like Me and Difficult People doesn’t keep them from hinting at the darker corners of the gay male experience in the 21st century. Furthermore, there’s something quite refreshing in seeing contemporary comedies having fun with old-school gay tropes and using them to fight back against censuring ideas of what LGBTQ representation can and should look like on screen. As Eichner writes, not every gay character needs to be a model citizen who has his shit together, you know?

Manuel Betancourt is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Film Comment, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic and Esquire.

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