Remembering Alexander Doty
Corey Creekmur/University of Iowa

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Alexander Doty

I’ve been asked to write an introduction to Alexander Doty’s series of short essays for FlowTV in order to pay tribute to him, and will simply confess from the outset that an objective account from me is impossible: Alex was a dear friend for over 30 years; we collaborated on one of the first volumes of essays devoted to gay, lesbian and queer criticism of popular culture, and had a lot of fun both in and out of our academic careers. I’m devastated by his senseless, unexpected loss, and don’t really expect to get over his absence from the world: as recent tributes to him demonstrate, I share my grief with hundreds of others, which is some comfort. And of course we all have Alex’s influential, sharp-eyed, and witty work.

Reviewing some of that work, including the FlowTV essays, reminds me that my warning of my lack of objectivity is, in fact, just an assertion of one of Alex’s critical assumptions, a recognition of the necessary subjectivity (by no means the same as unselfconscious egotism or narcissism) of engaged criticism of popular culture. Alex’s queer theory was deeply rooted in feminism, and though the phrase’s fashionable heyday is past, he remained committed to the credo that “the personal is political.” Once Alex came out as gay, he remained proudly and fiercely queer, without apologies. But he had been trained in fairly traditional literary studies, and his decision to write a Ph.D. dissertation in an English department on Alfred Hitchcock was, at the time, a bold break from tradition, although the rise of film studies provided increased institutional support for that early shift in his career.

However, his turn to what he helped to define as queer theory, as well as his turn to television as a subject for queer analysis, represented much more daring and professionally risky moves for a Catholic boy from west Texas. To add even more potential risk, his turn to TV criticism from a queer perspective was rooted not only in the close analysis of texts, but in the phenomenological and cultural act of television viewing, which Alex saw as a deeply personal pleasure as well as a lively social activity. He delighted in the various forms of social exchange that accompanied collective viewing, and even his “private” viewing was animated by discussions with friends and colleagues that made the domestic act of TV watching much like public film going in the classical Hollywood period – an occasion for gossip, commentary, snapshot reviews, and pop connoisseurship. Although the expansion of cable made collecting TV programs nearly impossible, for much of his life Alex pored over TV listings in order to plan the viewing and eventually the almost magical recording of almost any old film, as well as his favorite current and childhood shows.

It doesn’t surprise me that he began his contributions to FlowTV with a retrospective glace that he presents as simultaneously autobiographical, historical, and critical, nor that he attends to details that fill in the television viewing conditions of the cold war American family. For Alex, his retroactive understanding of the implicit queerness in both himself and the mainstream television he consumed as a child is not entirely separable from the memories of the carpet he watched from (with any sweet nostalgia for the era undercut by his eroticizing that viewing position), or the network of desires that were battled in any family in the era of a single television set and only a few broadcast channels. For Alex the experience of the mass media as a general activity was always balanced by the specificity of viewing at a particular place and time, and in particular company, whether among family, friends, or lovers. (In his recent essay on the reception of the stars Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, he writes, referring to Dietrich’s notorious preference for wearing pants, “Leave it to Dietrich to make queerness a matter of commonsense practicality.” I suspect one could replace Dietrich with Doty in that sentence to make the point I’m seeking here.)

Alex’s embrace of the internet was cautious, but I think he jumped at the chance to write an online column on television because it allowed for the currency that the lag time of academic publishing does not: a lot of Alex’s published work on TV was on older shows, which allowed for hindsight: he could consider Lucille Ball’s career in its entirely, for instance, when evaluating her crucial TV series. After his introductory piece his other FlowTV essays are necessarily more tentative, written with him willing to see what happens with a series that is ongoing. And while Alex had the remarkable ability to maintain a comic and even personal voice in work that remained theoretically rigorous, these pieces also feel to me like they are closer to his spoken voice, which demonstrated a quick wit and generosity, even when at its most critical: it’s a shame his writing doesn’t include his frequent laughter or mock outrage, delivered in melodramatic tones. I suspect these essays include views he would have been glad to revise if the creators of the TV shows under discussion had been wise enough to revise their work to meet his expectations. I am terribly sad that we won’t get to see those revisions or the insights that he should have been offering us for many years into the future, but right now any remaining fragments of his sharp, witty, and engaged personality are to be treasured.




Flow Remembers the Work of Alexander Doty:
I Love Shari: My Queerly Feminist Life with TV



Shari Lewis and Lambchop

Shari Lewis

Since this is my first column for FlowTV, I thought I might reveal a few secrets about my televisual past in order to provide a suggestive background for later columns by indicating some of the ways television has called out to my queerness and feminism. If television didn’t exactly make me queer or a feminist, it provided almost daily feeding and provoking of what became the queer and the feminist in me. Of course, I am (re)reading my televisual past as the person and the scholar I am now. But even though I didn’t understand my early television fascinations as “queer” or “gay” or “feminist” at the time, I still think this simultaneously autobiographical and critical exercise is one valuable way of constructing intertwined personal and cultural televisual histories that (re)place queerness and feminism deep within the heart of the mainstream.

Out of the haze of a black-and-white television set come my first role models: Shari Lewis and Captain Kangaroo. Shari was perky-with-a-ponytail personified, and she was smart: a multi-talented dynamo who was a ventriloquist, singer, dancer, and musician (and, I later discovered, a writer and producer). But what really drew me to Shari was Lambchop, one of her hand puppets. Where Shari was sweet and patient, Lambchop was selfish and opinionated. Where Shari would sing about cooperation and sharing, Lambchop would loudly demand attention and bling. For a sissy Catholic Army brat, Shari was the sensible and accomplished person I felt I should strive to become, but Lambchop was the show-offy diva this frustrated queer boy often wanted to be. She was, in short, the Miss Piggy for my generation.


The Patty Duke Show

Patty and Cathy on The Patty Duke Show

This was not the last time I would become fascinated by a Jekyll-and-Hyde pair on television. At around age ten, I transferred my Shari-and-Lambchop love to Patty and Cathy of The Patty Duke Show (a ripoff of the Haley Mills film The Parent Trap, which I also loved, loved, loved). Sophisticated, intellectual, European Cathy and her wacky free-spirited “twin” American cousin Patty offered distinct and appealing psycho-social choices for a girly bookwormy tween who was also dying to do something attention-getting. What The Patty Duke Show had that The Shari Lewis Show did not was the “twins played by the same actor” gimmick, which heightened the show’s suggestion that one person could have two distinct personas because who you “were” was really just a big performance. After all, Patty and Cathy would often completely fool other people—even parents and boyfriends—by pretending to be each other. My attempts at being both Patty and Cathy throughout late grade school and well into junior high did pay off. A combination of Patty’s manic energy and Cathy’s verbal dexterity allowed me to flummox most sissy-bashing boys—and I was named both “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Class Clown.”


Captain Kangaroo

Captain Kangaroo

If Shari, Lambchop, Patty, and Cathy represented the women I wanted to be, Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) showed me the man I could be. A far cry from the Army men and jocks surrounding me at home and at school, the husky Captain Kangaroo was soft-spoken, considerate, a good listener, and had a lovely relationship with another man, the lanky farmer Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum). He may have been a “Captain,” but he never ordered people around, being more concerned that everyone was comfortable, happy, and learning something new every day.

But if I identified with the Captain, my early televisual heartthrobs ran more along the lines of Mr. Green Jeans: tall, dark, sinewy, and laconic. Sort of like my father, actually. As it turns out, I have my father to thank for introducing me to my first set of TV dream men (well, there was Mighty Mouse, but we won’t go into that now). The “Master of the Channel Changer Knob” (and, later, “King of the Remote”) favored action-adventure shows. Given the choice, I would never have watched Bonanza, Combat, or Rawhide. But once I discovered Adam Cartwright/Pernell Roberts, Lt. Gil Hanley/Rick Jason, and Rowdy Yates/Clint Eastwood, nothing could keep me from lying in front of the television set (a position that allowed for some discreet erotic “fidgeting” against the carpet) when these shows were on.


Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartright on Bonanza

Hunky Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartright on Bonanza

I was most obsessed with Adam, who always dressed in black, revealed chest hair, and sported an impressive five o’clock shadow. Who wouldn’t fall for this dark, stylish hunk of bad boy rough trade? Well, my sisters, for two, who preferred the sensitive, smooth, pretty boy Little Joe/Michael Landon. And there, my friends, is the difference between a queer boy moving toward a “gay clone” young adulthood in the 1970s and straight girls moving toward an “I’ll get married, but he’d better not tell me what to do” future. I sometimes wonder whether my devotion to these shows gave my father some dim hope that I might turn out to be a straight boy, after all—or if that squirming on the carpet wasn’t as discreet as I thought.


That Girl

Marlo Thomas as That Girl

As I entered my teens, television started to become all about sitcoms, especially sitcoms centered around women: Bewitched, The Lucy Show, That Girl, Julia, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, Rhoda, Laverne and Shirley, Alice, Designing Women, The Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, Kate and Allie, and Roseanne. Many of these series later seemed to be perfect examples of Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Certainly there were sharp and strong women characters in American drama series from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, particularly in large ensemble dramas like Hill Street Blues, LA Law, St. Elsewhere and ER. But, aside from Cagney and Lacey and Murder, She Wrote, television drama was not where women were consistently being placed front-and-center to cut loose and dominate the proceedings. Even though they are technically variety shows, I’m going to include Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show here because the former was always about Lily Tomlin, Joanne Worley, and Ruth Buzzi for me (not so much the then ditzy, bikini-clad Goldie Hawn), while The Carol Burnett Show, among its other glories, developed its own sitcom-within-a-variety-show, Mama’s Family.


Liz Lemon

Liz Lemon doesn’t quite cut it


If I’ve missed anything on 21st-century American television, it has been the dearth of women-centered sitcoms (OK, the dearth of good sitcoms, period). Yes, there were Sex and the City and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and, no, I don’t consider Desperate Housewives or Ugly Betty sitcoms. Recent shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation can’t really be called woman-focused, even if Tina Fey and Amy Pohler perform in, co-produce, and occasionally write for them. Should I give Cougar Town a try? I certainly will be watching (and may report on) Hot in Cleveland, a new TV Land series that promises some good, old-fashioned, female sitcom pleasure just by bringing together Betty White (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls), Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me), Valerie Bertinelli (One Day at a Time), and Jane Leeves (Frasier). People keep telling me that I need to watch Weeds, The United States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie, but I haven’t subscribed to pay cable stations in over ten years. Maybe it’s time to start again.

Image Credits:
1. Shari Lewis
2. Patty and Cathy on The Patty Duke Show
3. Captain Kangaroo
4. Hunky Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartright on Bonanza
5. Marlo Thomas as That Girl
6. Liz Lemon doesn’t quite cut it

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Remembers the Work of Alexander Doty:
Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism

Jane Lynch holds up her Emmy for Glee

Jane Lynch holds up her Best Supporting Actress Emmy for Glee

The 2009-2010 Emmy Awards ceremony made it official: Arrivederci, Mad Men! Sayonara, 30 Rock! The new King and Queen of the American television hill are Glee and Modern Family—and not because they are two of the five shows with the most Emmy wins this year. If winning the most Emmys mattered at all, we’d all be wetting our pants about The Pacific. This Emmy show crowned Glee and Modern Family by devoting its two most elaborate set pieces to them. Jimmy Fallon may have been the host, but the casts of these series were the honored guest stars. They really didn’t need to win Emmys, because the industry canonized their shows that night.

The opening number made it clear that, as far as the industry is concerned, Mad Men and 30 Rock are not the hot young things anymore. Satire and moral ambiguity would need to make way for a less biting liberalism. Rushing into the show, Fallon meets four of the younger cast members of Glee (Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer, and Amber Riley) outside the Kodak Theatre. They don’t have enough money for tickets to the Emmys. A flyer announcing a regional glee club competition with a cash prize inspires the group to look for potential club members backstage. Among those picked up along the way to a “Born to Run” onstage performance are—wait for it—Tina Fey (30 Rock) and John Hamm (Mad Men), who finally blend in as backup singers with the Glee cast (now including Jane Lynch) and folks from once-hot shows like Lost and never-hot shows like Community. Glee, it seems, has the power to pull everything and everyone else on television into its orbit—even this year’s Emmy broadcast, whose title graphics were an imitation of Glee’s.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPkDFPmRSqU[/youtube]

The Glee-inspired opening number at the Emmys

Later in the ceremony, we are treated to a filmed segment in which Modern Family’s co-creator and co-executive producer Steven Levitan meets with the cast about ways to improve the show. Picking up where the tribute to Glee leaves off, Levitan’s first idea is something he calls “inter-network cross-pollen synergism,” which is represented by a scene in which gay couple Mitchell and Cameron announce they have adopted another child—Stewie from the animated series Family Guy. The cast rejects this idea, implying that their new hit “family” series doesn’t need the dubious help of the older “family” show. If anything, an appearance on Modern Family can boost shows and careers. The series has enough “It” clout for someone like George Clooney to appear as the possible new love interest for Claire, Gloria, and, finally, Mitchell and Cameron. Sitting in bed (in his suit) between the couple, Clooney has a punch line that ends Emmy’s Modern Family tribute with a lame joke: “I gotta get a film.” One suggestion here being, I guess, that for someone to play the lover in a homosexual ménage-a-trois on television would be to sink about as low as you could go, career-wise. And I thought Clooney was a liberal. Oh, maybe that’s just the problem.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ye46Pb7u6I4[/youtube]

Modern Family‘s “inter-network cross-pollen synergism” at the Emmys

In the liberal world of shows like Modern Family—and, I might as well add here, Glee—a non-homonormative, open relationship between gay men like Mitchell and Cameron would be nothing to laugh about, actually. Part of what is meant to be so humorously preposterous about Clooney’s ménage with Cameron and Mitchell is that on the show these characters are “good” gays who keep their “place at the table” by striving to be just like their straight middle class counterparts, living in a monogamous relationship and building up a (mildly dysfunctional) family with children, a stay-at-home “mom,” and a working “dad.” It is in negotiating the roles of husband/dad and wife/mom for Cameron and Mitchell that Modern Family reveals its most interesting ideological tensions, because both men are represented through a mixed bag of traditional gender codes. Cameron is both an ex-football player and a trained clown; he is also the more emotional and expressive of the two men. Red-haired Mitchell is shorter and has a much-slighter build, but he is also the more practical and serious partner, though he is also prone to worried over-protectiveness. What’s a liberal narrative like Modern Family to do with gay characters like this? For a while, the solution was to have Cameron and Mitchell take turns being the husband/dad and the wife/mom, which promised a challenging alternative to the depressingly old-school heterosexual couples. By the end of the first season, however, the show had put the normative back into their homo(s), with Mitchell admitting his lack of interest in domestic work and Cameron confessing that he wants Mitchell to “get a job so I can go back to being a stay-at-home dad and trophy wife”—in other words, the gay counterpart to Claire and Gloria.

Well, the “gay counterpart” to these straight wives and mothers in every way except for showing physical affection and desire for his partner (oh, and except for being married). I guess “same as everyone else” homonormative liberalism does have its limits. One of the few times I have been thankful for Facebook was when a campaign was started to insist that Cameron and Mitchell kiss. Levitan responded by saying that season two would deal with Mitchell’s aversion to public displays of affection. Darn clever using the show’s mockumentary format to get out of having two men kiss. But why aren’t the straight men uncomfortable about a PDA in front of the camera? To add insult to injury, Levitan blamed the protesters, saying it was “unfortunate” that the controversy had happened because he was planning to have Mitchell and Cameron kiss “as part of the natural development of the show.” Wait. I’m getting a sense of déjà vu. Didn’t we go through this with Will and Grace?

I don’t know if the show’s producers and writers realize this, but Cameron and Mitchell’s namesake is John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), someone who doesn’t know the meaning of “one of us” liberalism or homonormativity. And speaking of naming characters and the limits of television liberalism, how about that Glee? Here’s a quiz that even those of you who have never watched the show should be able to ace. Match the Glee character with their description:

1. Kurt a. white, blonde cheerleader
2. Rachel b. paraplegic male in a wheelchair with glasses
3. Mercedes c. ample black diva
4. Artie d. slight, stylish gay diva
5. Tina e. intense, dark-haired, white young woman
6. Quinn f. shy Asian American young woman

To make matters more predictable, black diva Mercedes (last name Jones) teams up with gay diva Kurt (last name Hummel, like those cute, kitschy Sound of Music-esque figurines), while offering wise advice, sympathy, and a place to stay to knocked-up blonde cheerleader Quinn. Why she’s Jennifer Holliday and Hattie McDaniel all rolled into one!

Before I get hate mail from Gleeks, I should say that the show is getting better. I found it difficult to watch the first season because it trafficked in the worst kind of United Colors of Benetton liberalism. Kurt, Mercedes, and Artie were consistently used to create a colorfully diverse narrative and musical background for the straight, white, able-bodied characters. Sure, they occasionally got a “big scene” or a solo, but these stood out because of their scarcity. Then, in a brilliant meta-narrative move, the second season gave these three “othered” characters—as well as Tina—more musical and narrative space once Kurt and Mercedes joined the cheerleading squad because of the glee club’s (and Glee’s) lack of appreciation for their talents.

Jimmy Fallon and the Glee cast at the Emmys

Jimmy Fallon, born to run with the Glee cast

While Glee’s easy liberalism is not a thing of the past, the series’ second season coup has kept me a regular viewer, if not made me a Gleek. As for Modern Family, I will check in on Cameron and Mitchell every so often, as well as on Gloria to see if she becomes more, or less, like Charo. But I am haunted by something creator-producer Levitan said to the actors who play Cameron and Mitchell during the Modern Family Emmy segment: “Most viewers like ‘gay,’ but nobody doesn’t like ‘not gay.’” Having seen the series’ first season, and considering his response to those “let them kiss” Facebook critics, Levitan’s remark seems less like a joke and more like a preview of things to come.

Image Credits:
1. Jane Lynch holds up her Best Supporting Actress Emmy for Glee.
2. Jimmy Fallon, born to run with the Glee cast.

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Remembers the Work of Alexander Doty:
Hot in Cleveland: Everything Old is New Again?

The cast of Hot in Cleveland

The cast of Hot in Cleveland

My last column closed by wishing for a new woman-centered sitcom for those of us who have resisted, or who just can’t afford, premium cable with its Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. I hoped that TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland would be that sitcom. The casting alone—Betty White, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli—was enough to send me into nostalgia mode, yearning for some of those “good old-fashioned female sitcom pleasures” found in Designing Women and The Golden Girls. Eight episodes in, and I am still not certain if Hot in Cleveland is the answer to my prayers or a case of “be careful what you wish for.” The pilot set up a premise that was both zany fun and borrowed goods. In a plot device that plays out like the beginning of a Preston Sturges screwball comedy, engine trouble forces three middle-aged friends flying from LA to Paris into taking a layover in Cleveland. Surveying the locals at a bar-restaurant, the trio are gobsmacked to find women eating big portions of food without guilt and men being attentive to these “real women.” A “full calorie” beer, a basket of chili fries, and a roll in the hay with a plumber is all it takes for divorcee and self-help writer Melanie Moretti (Bertinelli) to decide that she wants to live in Cleveland. Melanie’s friends, ex-soap star Victoria Chase (Malick) and “eyebrow Queen of Beverly Hills” Joy Scroggs (Leeves), decide to skip Paris and vacation in Cleveland.

Wacky and well-played though this premise is, it is, at best, an homage to (and, at worst, a ripoff of) a first season episode of 30 Rock in which food-loving, insecure New Yorker Liz Lemon finds herself in Cleveland, where she realizes she can pass as a model. Whereas the joke in this 30 Rock episode is largely on Cleveland, in Hot in Cleveland the joke (and the critique) is on LA and its crazy-making standards for female attractiveness. The problem with plopping Melanie, Victoria, and Joy in Cleveland, however, is that, at least for the moment, they are without the careers they had in LA, so the episodes have been leaning heavily on squeezing comic situations and one-liners from these women’s concerns about dating men/sex with men, aging, and how they look—all of which becomes a bit painful given the whole “hot in Cleveland” setup. But there are signs that the series will begin incorporating more of the trio’s work into its storylines. Joy has begun to offer treatments to her friends (including an “emergency” bikini wax using a candle she pinches from a bar), while Victoria has done a surreal commercial for a Japanese product called “Lady Pants.” This commercial is one of the funniest moments of the television season, up there with Sue Sylvester’s (Jane Lynch’s) version of Madonna’s “Vogue” video in Glee.

Victoria (Wendy Malick) shills for Lady Pants

On the basis of the Lady Pants commercial alone, I will give the frequent moments of conventional “female trouble” humor a pass, and hope that once Victoria and Joy decide to live in Cleveland, the series will become a little more like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Designing Women and a little less like the more questionable aspects of The Golden Girls—that is, as much focused on these characters as career women as it is now on their heterosexuality, their age/looks, and their ability to make double entendres. Double entendre brings me to the fourth recurring character in Hot in Cleveland, Elka Ostrovsky, played by the iconic Betty White. Elka, a caretaker who lives in the guest cottage of Melanie’s house, is one of those eccentric sitcom characters who drops in whenever an episode needs a little spice. While there has been some attempt to give her an interesting backstory (she’s a Pole who escaped from the Nazis) and quirks (she’s a long-time pot smoker, she Bedazzles tracksuits), thus far Elka has occupied the Sophia Petrillo (The Golden Girls) role of the tart/sassy/blunt/outspoken octogenarian who is trotted out to deliver racy one-liners making liberal use of words like “whores,” “prostitutes,” and “sluts” to describe the other women. White’s timing is a joy to behold, but the “old woman with a potty mouth” shtick is going to wear thin very quickly—and the series’ recent move to provide Elka with male companionship has only added an equally tired “old woman talking about or having sex” shtick to her character “development.”

Betty White as Elka

Betty White sasses as Polish neighbor Elka

If White’s comic chops have been able to camouflage, at least in part, the more conventional aspects of her role, the superb teamwork of Bertinelli, Malick, and Leeves has been the primary pleasure of watching Hot in Cleveland. Even in the pilot episode, this trio of sitcom veterans play off each other as if they have been working together for years, which is critically important for a sitcom in which the characters are wildly mismatched and improbable friends. Considering my previous work on women-centered sitcoms, I was also tickled to see that it only took the series four episodes (five, if you count the pilot) to introduce lesbianism in the form of Hailey Nash, a singer Melanie idolizes. True to classic women-centered sitcom form, however, this plot thread combines having one of the recurring characters mistaken for a lesbian with this characters’ incredible naiveté about all things Sapphic. In this case, Nash mistakes Melanie’s bumbling and fumbling encounters as inept, if endearing, come-ons, while Melanie seems to be clueless about Nash’s sexuality, even given that one of her albums is titled “I Like Girls” and features the song “Love My Honeypot.” To the show’s credit, however, the possibility of an encounter between Hailey and Melanie is what the title of this episode finally—and wistfully?—refers to: “The Sex That Got Away” (a variation, of course, on “The Man That Got Away”).

For the most part, however, the playing out of this lesbian narrative thread makes you wonder if you are watching a 2010 sitcom, or something from the 1980s. Hot in Cleveland’s anachronistic qualities have been one of the major bones of contention in reviews and online commentary, with as many people welcoming this return to “old fashioned” (aka “classic”) situational and one-liner sitcoms—particularly one with mature women regulars—as bemoaning the series’ “derivative” time warp aura, including laughter from a live studio audience. I suppose this back-to-the-’80s vibe is why I am still on the fence about the show, relishing the all-woman comic ensemble work while being irritated by the post-feminist paces through which the scripts often put these women. Reading Alessandra Stanley’s review of the series in The New York Times again has make me cut the show some slack for the moment, as she points out that “it’s hard to argue that a new format makes for more contemporary comedy,” or more progressive politics. For example, while Modern Family features the currently popular sitcom trope of characters talking to a (reality show?) camera, as well as a gay couple, Stanley reminds us that the series also has “women’s roles. . .as traditional as [those] on Leave it to Beaver.”

Hot in Cleveland cast with Sean Hayes

Producer Sean Hayes with the show’s cast

I also need to remember that even The Golden Girls and Designing Women had their fair share of lame one-liners and “single” entendre humor, and that these shows took some time to develop multi-dimensional characters and put them into situations not rooted in women’s insecurities about men, looks, or age. But is it too much to ask that a show with producers like Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes and a creator/producer/writer like Suzanne Martin (Frazier and Ellen) keep in mind that these woman are already “hot in Cleveland” and, therefore, just say no to situations like the friends arranging bad dates for each other, or to lines like Joy’s “I haven’t felt like a piece of meat in so long”? While I’ll continue watching Hot in Cleveland, I want Sean and Suzanne to know that I am putting them on probation.

Image Credits:
1. The cast of Hot in Cleveland
2. Betty White sasses as Polish neighbor Elka
3. Producer Sean Hayes with the show’s cast

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Favorites: Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism
Alexander Doty / Indiana University

Flow Favorites 2011

Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!

Special Features Editor Jessalynn Keller:
While the hype surrounding supposedly groundbreaking shows Glee and Modern Family have certainly not gone unnoticed amongst media studies scholars, Doty calls attention to the ways in which these seemingly progressive texts rely on a middle-of-the-road liberalism that, perhaps ironically, serve to protect status quo representations. In an era where neoliberalism has comfortably adopted notions of multiculturalism, diversity, and choice, Doty’s critique is an important reminder of how complicated the debate over “progressive” representations actually is. This will no doubt be an important and ongoing conversation within media studies for years to come.

Jane Lynch holds up her Emmy for Glee

Jane Lynch holds up her Best Supporting Actress Emmy for Glee

The 2009-2010 Emmy Awards ceremony made it official: Arrivederci, Mad Men! Sayonara, 30 Rock! The new King and Queen of the American television hill are Glee and Modern Family—and not because they are two of the five shows with the most Emmy wins this year. If winning the most Emmys mattered at all, we’d all be wetting our pants about The Pacific. This Emmy show crowned Glee and Modern Family by devoting its two most elaborate set pieces to them. Jimmy Fallon may have been the host, but the casts of these series were the honored guest stars. They really didn’t need to win Emmys, because the industry canonized their shows that night.

The opening number made it clear that, as far as the industry is concerned, Mad Men and 30 Rock are not the hot young things anymore. Satire and moral ambiguity would need to make way for a less biting liberalism. Rushing into the show, Fallon meets four of the younger cast members of Glee (Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer, and Amber Riley) outside the Kodak Theatre. They don’t have enough money for tickets to the Emmys. A flyer announcing a regional glee club competition with a cash prize inspires the group to look for potential club members backstage. Among those picked up along the way to a “Born to Run” onstage performance are—wait for it—Tina Fey (30 Rock) and John Hamm (Mad Men), who finally blend in as backup singers with the Glee cast (now including Jane Lynch) and folks from once-hot shows like Lost and never-hot shows like Community. Glee, it seems, has the power to pull everything and everyone else on television into its orbit—even this year’s Emmy broadcast, whose title graphics were an imitation of Glee’s.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPkDFPmRSqU[/youtube]

The Glee-inspired opening number at the Emmys

Later in the ceremony, we are treated to a filmed segment in which Modern Family’s co-creator and co-executive producer Steven Levitan meets with the cast about ways to improve the show. Picking up where the tribute to Glee leaves off, Levitan’s first idea is something he calls “inter-network cross-pollen synergism,” which is represented by a scene in which gay couple Mitchell and Cameron announce they have adopted another child—Stewie from the animated series Family Guy. The cast rejects this idea, implying that their new hit “family” series doesn’t need the dubious help of the older “family” show. If anything, an appearance on Modern Family can boost shows and careers. The series has enough “It” clout for someone like George Clooney to appear as the possible new love interest for Claire, Gloria, and, finally, Mitchell and Cameron. Sitting in bed (in his suit) between the couple, Clooney has a punch line that ends Emmy’s Modern Family tribute with a lame joke: “I gotta get a film.” One suggestion here being, I guess, that for someone to play the lover in a homosexual ménage-a-trois on television would be to sink about as low as you could go, career-wise. And I thought Clooney was a liberal. Oh, maybe that’s just the problem.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ye46Pb7u6I4[/youtube]

Modern Family‘s “inter-network cross-pollen synergism” at the Emmys

In the liberal world of shows like Modern Family—and, I might as well add here, Glee—a non-homonormative, open relationship between gay men like Mitchell and Cameron would be nothing to laugh about, actually. Part of what is meant to be so humorously preposterous about Clooney’s ménage with Cameron and Mitchell is that on the show these characters are “good” gays who keep their “place at the table” by striving to be just like their straight middle class counterparts, living in a monogamous relationship and building up a (mildly dysfunctional) family with children, a stay-at-home “mom,” and a working “dad.” It is in negotiating the roles of husband/dad and wife/mom for Cameron and Mitchell that Modern Family reveals its most interesting ideological tensions, because both men are represented through a mixed bag of traditional gender codes. Cameron is both an ex-football player and a trained clown; he is also the more emotional and expressive of the two men. Red-haired Mitchell is shorter and has a much-slighter build, but he is also the more practical and serious partner, though he is also prone to worried over-protectiveness. What’s a liberal narrative like Modern Family to do with gay characters like this? For a while, the solution was to have Cameron and Mitchell take turns being the husband/dad and the wife/mom, which promised a challenging alternative to the depressingly old-school heterosexual couples. By the end of the first season, however, the show had put the normative back into their homo(s), with Mitchell admitting his lack of interest in domestic work and Cameron confessing that he wants Mitchell to “get a job so I can go back to being a stay-at-home dad and trophy wife”—in other words, the gay counterpart to Claire and Gloria.

Well, the “gay counterpart” to these straight wives and mothers in every way except for showing physical affection and desire for his partner (oh, and except for being married). I guess “same as everyone else” homonormative liberalism does have its limits. One of the few times I have been thankful for Facebook was when a campaign was started to insist that Cameron and Mitchell kiss. Levitan responded by saying that season two would deal with Mitchell’s aversion to public displays of affection. Darn clever using the show’s mockumentary format to get out of having two men kiss. But why aren’t the straight men uncomfortable about a PDA in front of the camera? To add insult to injury, Levitan blamed the protesters, saying it was “unfortunate” that the controversy had happened because he was planning to have Mitchell and Cameron kiss “as part of the natural development of the show.” Wait. I’m getting a sense of déjà vu. Didn’t we go through this with Will and Grace?

I don’t know if the show’s producers and writers realize this, but Cameron and Mitchell’s namesake is John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), someone who doesn’t know the meaning of “one of us” liberalism or homonormativity. And speaking of naming characters and the limits of television liberalism, how about that Glee? Here’s a quiz that even those of you who have never watched the show should be able to ace. Match the Glee character with their description:

1. Kurt a. white, blonde cheerleader
2. Rachel b. paraplegic male in a wheelchair with glasses
3. Mercedes c. ample black diva
4. Artie d. slight, stylish gay diva
5. Tina e. intense, dark-haired, white young woman
6. Quinn f. shy Asian American young woman

To make matters more predictable, black diva Mercedes (last name Jones) teams up with gay diva Kurt (last name Hummel, like those cute, kitschy Sound of Music-esque figurines), while offering wise advice, sympathy, and a place to stay to knocked-up blonde cheerleader Quinn. Why she’s Jennifer Holliday and Hattie McDaniel all rolled into one!

Before I get hate mail from Gleeks, I should say that the show is getting better. I found it difficult to watch the first season because it trafficked in the worst kind of United Colors of Benetton liberalism. Kurt, Mercedes, and Artie were consistently used to create a colorfully diverse narrative and musical background for the straight, white, able-bodied characters. Sure, they occasionally got a “big scene” or a solo, but these stood out because of their scarcity. Then, in a brilliant meta-narrative move, the second season gave these three “othered” characters—as well as Tina—more musical and narrative space once Kurt and Mercedes joined the cheerleading squad because of the glee club’s (and Glee’s) lack of appreciation for their talents.

Jimmy Fallon and the Glee cast at the Emmys

Jimmy Fallon, born to run with the Glee cast

While Glee’s easy liberalism is not a thing of the past, the series’ second season coup has kept me a regular viewer, if not made me a Gleek. As for Modern Family, I will check in on Cameron and Mitchell every so often, as well as on Gloria to see if she becomes more, or less, like Charo. But I am haunted by something creator-producer Levitan said to the actors who play Cameron and Mitchell during the Modern Family Emmy segment: “Most viewers like ‘gay,’ but nobody doesn’t like ‘not gay.’” Having seen the series’ first season, and considering his response to those “let them kiss” Facebook critics, Levitan’s remark seems less like a joke and more like a preview of things to come.

Image Credits:
1. Jane Lynch holds up her Best Supporting Actress Emmy for Glee.
2. Jimmy Fallon, born to run with the Glee cast.

Original comments:

Jana said:

Thank you so much for this text. I almost started to believe nobody noticed this so called “liberalism” …


September 24th, 2010 at 6:18 am

  
Uh nope said:

What a news flash: Primetime US television isn’t as progressive as avant garde queer indie flicks. Story at 11!
GLEE is a train-wreck in terms of its poor writing (except for a few Jane Lynch zingers) and sure, the characters are pretty stock and even cliched but that is all part and parcel of the musical genre. (Come to think of it, my actual high school experience included lots of stock and even cliched characters…cliques and everything! go figure…) Whatever its formula, it certainly seems to be resonating with America. And whatever its flaws, it still ain’t the 700 club. As a popular modernist text I think it’s still pretty progressive, and that’s not a bad thing. 
As a gay guy I love the gay family on MODERN FAMILY. But you know what? I actually prefer that those two dudes not slober over each other onscreen. Maybe if they looked like Ricky Martin and Jamiee Foxx or something it would be okay. I certainly didn’t mind Keith and David making out on Six Feet Under. Nor did America, it would seem. Does that make me shallow? Probably. Does it make America? Oh yes. But all the same, other than a peck on the cheek or quick peck on the lips or something I’d really rather not interrupt my eating by seeing these pleasant but relatively-unattractive-looking characters make out. I can get that at bear night at the bar, I don’t need it on my TV. (I’m also not insinuating that anyone wants to watch me make out. Like, mirrors are not my friend either…) So I can’t blame the network suits for that one, either. 
So perhaps we want more attractive gay characters and more perfectly-complex “model minorities,” instead of the actual femmy fat ones who actually exist and generally avoid PDAs for all of our benefit? But that would be feeding into other stereotypes. 
What’s a tv writer or network to do? They may not be bastions of liberalism, and I personally think Glee is awful, but all the same I’m glad these two programs exist and are popular. With marriage equality and don’t ask don’t tell recently being defeated now is not the time to be splitting hairs. As academics we have more important work to do.




September 24th, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Craig Martin said:

Its almost thirty years ago, but I still vividly recall sitting in a high school English class when the school bell sounded. Students spontaneously erupted into cacophonic stereo as they leaped from their chairs. “What do you think you’re doing?” Miss McLean bawled at the exiting pupils. “This is not Fame, you know!” And she was right to identify Fame as a major influence on our teenage behaviours. In the era of Footloose and Flashdance and Thriller, Fame the series was a high rating TV bonanza, and why wouldn’t anyone not want to emulate the behaviour of a group of all-singing, all-dancing NYC students on the fast track to showbiz success. Meanwhile in gym class, when it came time for hockey, us boys would swing our sticks about like quarter staffs and quote lines from Monkey, mimicking the series’ dubbed mock-asian accents. With so many hockey sticks flying about, someone was usually getting hurt. The point is, collectively growing up in front of the television, it wasn’t hard to spot its effects on the behaviours of young viewers. Mimicry is a significant element of fandom, and we were, most of us, fans of the likes of Fame and Monkey, CHiPs and “V”. I’m a fan of Glee, but there are behaviours modelled in the show that frankly trouble me. The worst of it, for me, is the bullying that goes entirely undeterred by the series’ elders. Almost every week the social outcasts of the Glee universe must endure Slushees thrown in their faces. Its a running gag, and one that is emulated in the Emmy’s Gleeful opening number as Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey get “slushed” while the Kodak theatre erupts into laughter. Yet every time I see it happen on the series, I’m angered and appalled. If this is the new Fame, are real students getting soaked by real slushes and hurled into real dumpsters? And is it as funny as when it happens on TV? When Kurt’s blue-collar father storms into the school to protect his son’s equal rights as a gay teen, that never includes the profound bullying he must endure at the hands of his peers. Not to mention the bullying endured by the rest of the Gleesters. Do their parents not notice the large food dye stains in their children’s laundry, or the ripe smell of dumpster as they walk in the door? Mr Schuester seems aware of the bullying, but never seems to lift a finger unless it involves Sue Sylvester. Last time I checked, silence was consent. Bullying in the Glee universe is either condoned or invisible to the series’ inept, impotent adults, and the biggest lesson students need to learn is that they’re on their own. It’s a vicious world, but hey, its okay! Music is the panacea. Am I missing something?




September 25th, 2010 at 2:13 pm   

Kelli Marshall said:

So enjoyed your column as I’m a faithful watcher of both programs (even if GLEE sometimes drives me insane!). I’m a bit confused by one thing though: at the end of the piece, you refer to the shift (re: the “othered” characters) that occurred in GLEE’s second season. Are you meaning the end of its first season? Season 2 just began this week, didn’t it?




September 25th, 2010 at 2:56 pm  
 

Alexander Doty said:

Glad to get the engaged pro and con responses to the column–and to the shows it covered. I suppose I can’t reasonably expect American network television to be radical (especially not in this day and age when even so-called liberal Democrats are pretty conservative), but it certainly can be liberal in more complicated, less cut-and-dried ways than it is. From where I sit, it is particularly galling to have the issue of same sex couples kissing or showing any kind of physical intimacy on American prime time network television keep coming back as a “problem.” In many, many ways, network television has actually slipped back from where it was when it had post-coming out “Ellen” and “Will and Grace” (and I had quite a few class and race/ethinicty problems with the latter). And, yes, (to respond to another message)part of the problem with American (network) TV liberalism is that it pretty much stays at the level of decontextualized individual relationships and doesn’t consider many things within broader socio-cultural contexts–which Craig exemplified by “Glee’s” playing bullying-the-”other” for laughs, which allows viewers not to think about the broader cultural and institutional aspects of bullying. OK, “Glee” is a musical comedy-drama, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be smarter and more challenging than it has been about the many hot button issues it has seen fit to include as part of its characters or storylines. In answer to Kelli, I DID mean the end of the first season–I guess that first season went on for so long (or was stretched out for so long) it seemed like two seasons!!




September 26th, 2010 at 9:00 pm
  

Matt B. said:

The advances in liberal television today have less been due to the radical situations, and more due to the meshing of these characters into “center-right” America. Would Mitchell and Cameron be nearly as funny if they didn’t try to mesh into a suburban household? Like last weeks episode where they decide to build a castle for Lilly (their adopted daughter), Mitchell’s father came over to help them out with the building of the castle because Cameron doesn’t trust Mitchell with power tools. The funniest joke of that segment was the father’s remark that building a bookcase with Mitchell was his Vietnam and he was in Vietnam. It was the simple tasks never portrayed on television some have never seen gays do, that made that same suburban culture realize that the only thing different from homosexuals and heterosexuals is who they sleep in the same bed with. It is the characters confused identity that helps audiences identify with the characters and who are constantly going through the same thing. To put homosexuals into a stereotype would be doing everyone a disservice, just like putting a woman into a stereotypical roll. Every individual is unique and modern family is doing America a service by not stereotyping any character, and developing each one with his/her separate quirks and maybe an unnatural fear of pigeons (Mitchell).




September 27th, 2010 at 2:23 pm   

Chelsea Bullock said:

I appreciate the analysis and critique that you do in this article. The difference between Modern Family’s claims of cultural representation and its actuality seem to go unmentioned far more than is warranted. In thinking about Glee though, I wonder if some of your criticisms overly simplify the situation. At the end of the first season and now the beginning of the second, the ethnic, racial, sexual, and otherwise socio-political identities seem to be more complicated. Kristen Warner recently wrote a piece on Mad Men that I think could easily be applied to what’s happening in Glee (http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/…..-mad-men/). I am not suggesting that Glee’s rather ironic self-reflexive criticisms of marginalization should be considered satisfactory for viewers, but that maybe there is something deeper and calculated at work beneath the liberal shellac. We’ll see. Sue’s character is not only the most enjoyable for me to watch, but also, I think, has the most political (productivity) potential.The odds of the show developing beyond stereotypes and mundane multiculturalism are pretty low, but I’ll keep watching for at least this season even if just to see Sue.




September 30th, 2010 at 12:28 am   

William Moner said:

Just as an addendum to this discussion (and perhaps an added wrinkle), the Modern Family “kiss” episode airing last week included a very sly treatment of the controversial homosexual male kiss. In the episode, a very large deal is made out of a father/son kiss between Mitchell and his father (played by Ed O’Neill). The two awkwardly kiss — in a father/son heteronormative fashion — and return to their respective spouses. At that point, the foreground action shows a conversation between two characters while, in the background and in soft focus, Cam and Mitchell share a very loving kiss. 
I appreciate the critiques of Glee, as I do agree that the show leaves a lot to be desired insofar as reducing stereotypes. However, Modern Family is doing more than most shows to bring homosexual relationships into focus as natural, caring and, dare I say, normal. By not making a big deal about the actual kiss between Cam and Mitchell, the show deftly satirizes the “shock” of seeing two men kiss (father/son) in favor of blending a homosexual kiss into the show’s mise-en-scene. For that move, they should be applauded.




October 5th, 2010 at 5:42 pm   

Sirak Berhe said:

I argue that the show is getting better. however, I found it difficult to watch the first season because it trafficked in the worst kind of United Colors of Benetton liberalism. Kurt, Mercedes, and Artie were consistently used to create a colorfully diverse narrative and musical background for the straight, white, able-bodied characters. Sure, they occasionally got a “big scene” or a solo, but these stood out because of their scarcity. Then, in a brilliant meta-narrative move, the second season gave these three “othered” characters as well as Tina more musical and narrative space once Kurt and Mercedes joined the cheer leading squad because of the glee club’s (and Glee’s) lack of appreciation for their talents.




October 21st, 2010 at 9:21 am  
 

Betsy W said:

Alexander, I’m curious to know your thoughts on Glee’s most recent episode that included an on screen kiss between gay Kurt and his football-playing bully. This was a gasp! moment for me as I watched and thought to myself – did they just go there? But they did. Is this proof of the show getting better as mentioned above? Perhaps. But I wonder – was this on screen kiss developed merely to beat out Modern Family and really give viewers what they’ve been asking for? Or are the writers of Glee more intentional than I give them cr for?




November 12th, 2010 at 1:19 am   

Please feel free to comment.




Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism
Alexander Doty / Indiana University

Jane Lynch holds up her Emmy for Glee

Jane Lynch holds up her Best Supporting Actress Emmy for Glee

The 2009-2010 Emmy Awards ceremony made it official: Arrivederci, Mad Men! Sayonara, 30 Rock! The new King and Queen of the American television hill are Glee and Modern Family—and not because they are two of the five shows with the most Emmy wins this year. If winning the most Emmys mattered at all, we’d all be wetting our pants about The Pacific. This Emmy show crowned Glee and Modern Family by devoting its two most elaborate set pieces to them. Jimmy Fallon may have been the host, but the casts of these series were the honored guest stars. They really didn’t need to win Emmys, because the industry canonized their shows that night.

The opening number made it clear that, as far as the industry is concerned, Mad Men and 30 Rock are not the hot young things anymore. Satire and moral ambiguity would need to make way for a less biting liberalism. Rushing into the show, Fallon meets four of the younger cast members of Glee (Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer, and Amber Riley) outside the Kodak Theatre. They don’t have enough money for tickets to the Emmys. A flyer announcing a regional glee club competition with a cash prize inspires the group to look for potential club members backstage. Among those picked up along the way to a “Born to Run” onstage performance are—wait for it—Tina Fey (30 Rock) and John Hamm (Mad Men), who finally blend in as backup singers with the Glee cast (now including Jane Lynch) and folks from once-hot shows like Lost and never-hot shows like Community. Glee, it seems, has the power to pull everything and everyone else on television into its orbit—even this year’s Emmy broadcast, whose title graphics were an imitation of Glee’s.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPkDFPmRSqU[/youtube]

The Glee-inspired opening number at the Emmys

Later in the ceremony, we are treated to a filmed segment in which Modern Family’s co-creator and co-executive producer Steven Levitan meets with the cast about ways to improve the show. Picking up where the tribute to Glee leaves off, Levitan’s first idea is something he calls “inter-network cross-pollen synergism,” which is represented by a scene in which gay couple Mitchell and Cameron announce they have adopted another child—Stewie from the animated series Family Guy. The cast rejects this idea, implying that their new hit “family” series doesn’t need the dubious help of the older “family” show. If anything, an appearance on Modern Family can boost shows and careers. The series has enough “It” clout for someone like George Clooney to appear as the possible new love interest for Claire, Gloria, and, finally, Mitchell and Cameron. Sitting in bed (in his suit) between the couple, Clooney has a punch line that ends Emmy’s Modern Family tribute with a lame joke: “I gotta get a film.” One suggestion here being, I guess, that for someone to play the lover in a homosexual ménage-a-trois on television would be to sink about as low as you could go, career-wise. And I thought Clooney was a liberal. Oh, maybe that’s just the problem.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ye46Pb7u6I4[/youtube]

Modern Family‘s “inter-network cross-pollen synergism” at the Emmys

In the liberal world of shows like Modern Family—and, I might as well add here, Glee—a non-homonormative, open relationship between gay men like Mitchell and Cameron would be nothing to laugh about, actually. Part of what is meant to be so humorously preposterous about Clooney’s ménage with Cameron and Mitchell is that on the show these characters are “good” gays who keep their “place at the table” by striving to be just like their straight middle class counterparts, living in a monogamous relationship and building up a (mildly dysfunctional) family with children, a stay-at-home “mom,” and a working “dad.” It is in negotiating the roles of husband/dad and wife/mom for Cameron and Mitchell that Modern Family reveals its most interesting ideological tensions, because both men are represented through a mixed bag of traditional gender codes. Cameron is both an ex-football player and a trained clown; he is also the more emotional and expressive of the two men. Red-haired Mitchell is shorter and has a much-slighter build, but he is also the more practical and serious partner, though he is also prone to worried over-protectiveness. What’s a liberal narrative like Modern Family to do with gay characters like this? For a while, the solution was to have Cameron and Mitchell take turns being the husband/dad and the wife/mom, which promised a challenging alternative to the depressingly old-school heterosexual couples. By the end of the first season, however, the show had put the normative back into their homo(s), with Mitchell admitting his lack of interest in domestic work and Cameron confessing that he wants Mitchell to “get a job so I can go back to being a stay-at-home dad and trophy wife”—in other words, the gay counterpart to Claire and Gloria.

Well, the “gay counterpart” to these straight wives and mothers in every way except for showing physical affection and desire for his partner (oh, and except for being married). I guess “same as everyone else” homonormative liberalism does have its limits. One of the few times I have been thankful for Facebook was when a campaign was started to insist that Cameron and Mitchell kiss. Levitan responded by saying that season two would deal with Mitchell’s aversion to public displays of affection. Darn clever using the show’s mockumentary format to get out of having two men kiss. But why aren’t the straight men uncomfortable about a PDA in front of the camera? To add insult to injury, Levitan blamed the protesters, saying it was “unfortunate” that the controversy had happened because he was planning to have Mitchell and Cameron kiss “as part of the natural development of the show.” Wait. I’m getting a sense of déjà vu. Didn’t we go through this with Will and Grace?

I don’t know if the show’s producers and writers realize this, but Cameron and Mitchell’s namesake is John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), someone who doesn’t know the meaning of “one of us” liberalism or homonormativity. And speaking of naming characters and the limits of television liberalism, how about that Glee? Here’s a quiz that even those of you who have never watched the show should be able to ace. Match the Glee character with their description:

1. Kurt a. white, blonde cheerleader
2. Rachel b. paraplegic male in a wheelchair with glasses
3. Mercedes c. ample black diva
4. Artie d. slight, stylish gay diva
5. Tina e. intense, dark-haired, white young woman
6. Quinn f. shy Asian American young woman

To make matters more predictable, black diva Mercedes (last name Jones) teams up with gay diva Kurt (last name Hummel, like those cute, kitschy Sound of Music-esque figurines), while offering wise advice, sympathy, and a place to stay to knocked-up blonde cheerleader Quinn. Why she’s Jennifer Holliday and Hattie McDaniel all rolled into one!

Before I get hate mail from Gleeks, I should say that the show is getting better. I found it difficult to watch the first season because it trafficked in the worst kind of United Colors of Benetton liberalism. Kurt, Mercedes, and Artie were consistently used to create a colorfully diverse narrative and musical background for the straight, white, able-bodied characters. Sure, they occasionally got a “big scene” or a solo, but these stood out because of their scarcity. Then, in a brilliant meta-narrative move, the second season gave these three “othered” characters—as well as Tina—more musical and narrative space once Kurt and Mercedes joined the cheerleading squad because of the glee club’s (and Glee’s) lack of appreciation for their talents.

Jimmy Fallon and the Glee cast at the Emmys

Jimmy Fallon, born to run with the Glee cast

While Glee’s easy liberalism is not a thing of the past, the series’ second season coup has kept me a regular viewer, if not made me a Gleek. As for Modern Family, I will check in on Cameron and Mitchell every so often, as well as on Gloria to see if she becomes more, or less, like Charo. But I am haunted by something creator-producer Levitan said to the actors who play Cameron and Mitchell during the Modern Family Emmy segment: “Most viewers like ‘gay,’ but nobody doesn’t like ‘not gay.’” Having seen the series’ first season, and considering his response to those “let them kiss” Facebook critics, Levitan’s remark seems less like a joke and more like a preview of things to come.

Image Credits:
1. Jane Lynch holds up her Best Supporting Actress Emmy for Glee.
2. Jimmy Fallon, born to run with the Glee cast.

Please feel free to comment.




Hot in Cleveland: Everything Old is New Again?
Alexander Doty / Indiana University

The cast of Hot in Cleveland

The cast of Hot in Cleveland

My last column closed by wishing for a new woman-centered sitcom for those of us who have resisted, or who just can’t afford, premium cable with its Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. I hoped that TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland would be that sitcom. The casting alone—Betty White, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli—was enough to send me into nostalgia mode, yearning for some of those “good old-fashioned female sitcom pleasures” found in Designing Women and The Golden Girls. Eight episodes in, and I am still not certain if Hot in Cleveland is the answer to my prayers or a case of “be careful what you wish for.” The pilot set up a premise that was both zany fun and borrowed goods. In a plot device that plays out like the beginning of a Preston Sturges screwball comedy, engine trouble forces three middle-aged friends flying from LA to Paris into taking a layover in Cleveland. Surveying the locals at a bar-restaurant, the trio are gobsmacked to find women eating big portions of food without guilt and men being attentive to these “real women.” A “full calorie” beer, a basket of chili fries, and a roll in the hay with a plumber is all it takes for divorcee and self-help writer Melanie Moretti (Bertinelli) to decide that she wants to live in Cleveland. Melanie’s friends, ex-soap star Victoria Chase (Malick) and “eyebrow Queen of Beverly Hills” Joy Scroggs (Leeves), decide to skip Paris and vacation in Cleveland.

Wacky and well-played though this premise is, it is, at best, an homage to (and, at worst, a ripoff of) a first season episode of 30 Rock in which food-loving, insecure New Yorker Liz Lemon finds herself in Cleveland, where she realizes she can pass as a model. Whereas the joke in this 30 Rock episode is largely on Cleveland, in Hot in Cleveland the joke (and the critique) is on LA and its crazy-making standards for female attractiveness. The problem with plopping Melanie, Victoria, and Joy in Cleveland, however, is that, at least for the moment, they are without the careers they had in LA, so the episodes have been leaning heavily on squeezing comic situations and one-liners from these women’s concerns about dating men/sex with men, aging, and how they look—all of which becomes a bit painful given the whole “hot in Cleveland” setup. But there are signs that the series will begin incorporating more of the trio’s work into its storylines. Joy has begun to offer treatments to her friends (including an “emergency” bikini wax using a candle she pinches from a bar), while Victoria has done a surreal commercial for a Japanese product called “Lady Pants.” This commercial is one of the funniest moments of the television season, up there with Sue Sylvester’s (Jane Lynch’s) version of Madonna’s “Vogue” video in Glee.

Victoria (Wendy Malick) shills for Lady Pants

On the basis of the Lady Pants commercial alone, I will give the frequent moments of conventional “female trouble” humor a pass, and hope that once Victoria and Joy decide to live in Cleveland, the series will become a little more like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Designing Women and a little less like the more questionable aspects of The Golden Girls—that is, as much focused on these characters as career women as it is now on their heterosexuality, their age/looks, and their ability to make double entendres. Double entendre brings me to the fourth recurring character in Hot in Cleveland, Elka Ostrovsky, played by the iconic Betty White. Elka, a caretaker who lives in the guest cottage of Melanie’s house, is one of those eccentric sitcom characters who drops in whenever an episode needs a little spice. While there has been some attempt to give her an interesting backstory (she’s a Pole who escaped from the Nazis) and quirks (she’s a long-time pot smoker, she Bedazzles tracksuits), thus far Elka has occupied the Sophia Petrillo (The Golden Girls) role of the tart/sassy/blunt/outspoken octogenarian who is trotted out to deliver racy one-liners making liberal use of words like “whores,” “prostitutes,” and “sluts” to describe the other women. White’s timing is a joy to behold, but the “old woman with a potty mouth” shtick is going to wear thin very quickly—and the series’ recent move to provide Elka with male companionship has only added an equally tired “old woman talking about or having sex” shtick to her character “development.”

Betty White as Elka

Betty White sasses as Polish neighbor Elka

If White’s comic chops have been able to camouflage, at least in part, the more conventional aspects of her role, the superb teamwork of Bertinelli, Malick, and Leeves has been the primary pleasure of watching Hot in Cleveland. Even in the pilot episode, this trio of sitcom veterans play off each other as if they have been working together for years, which is critically important for a sitcom in which the characters are wildly mismatched and improbable friends. Considering my previous work on women-centered sitcoms, I was also tickled to see that it only took the series four episodes (five, if you count the pilot) to introduce lesbianism in the form of Hailey Nash, a singer Melanie idolizes. True to classic women-centered sitcom form, however, this plot thread combines having one of the recurring characters mistaken for a lesbian with this characters’ incredible naiveté about all things Sapphic. In this case, Nash mistakes Melanie’s bumbling and fumbling encounters as inept, if endearing, come-ons, while Melanie seems to be clueless about Nash’s sexuality, even given that one of her albums is titled “I Like Girls” and features the song “Love My Honeypot.” To the show’s credit, however, the possibility of an encounter between Hailey and Melanie is what the title of this episode finally—and wistfully?—refers to: “The Sex That Got Away” (a variation, of course, on “The Man That Got Away”).

For the most part, however, the playing out of this lesbian narrative thread makes you wonder if you are watching a 2010 sitcom, or something from the 1980s. Hot in Cleveland’s anachronistic qualities have been one of the major bones of contention in reviews and online commentary, with as many people welcoming this return to “old fashioned” (aka “classic”) situational and one-liner sitcoms—particularly one with mature women regulars—as bemoaning the series’ “derivative” time warp aura, including laughter from a live studio audience. I suppose this back-to-the-’80s vibe is why I am still on the fence about the show, relishing the all-woman comic ensemble work while being irritated by the post-feminist paces through which the scripts often put these women. Reading Alessandra Stanley’s review of the series in The New York Times again has make me cut the show some slack for the moment, as she points out that “it’s hard to argue that a new format makes for more contemporary comedy,” or more progressive politics. For example, while Modern Family features the currently popular sitcom trope of characters talking to a (reality show?) camera, as well as a gay couple, Stanley reminds us that the series also has “women’s roles. . .as traditional as [those] on Leave it to Beaver.”

Hot in Cleveland cast with Sean Hayes

Producer Sean Hayes with the show’s cast

I also need to remember that even The Golden Girls and Designing Women had their fair share of lame one-liners and “single” entendre humor, and that these shows took some time to develop multi-dimensional characters and put them into situations not rooted in women’s insecurities about men, looks, or age. But is it too much to ask that a show with producers like Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes and a creator/producer/writer like Suzanne Martin (Frazier and Ellen) keep in mind that these woman are already “hot in Cleveland” and, therefore, just say no to situations like the friends arranging bad dates for each other, or to lines like Joy’s “I haven’t felt like a piece of meat in so long”? While I’ll continue watching Hot in Cleveland, I want Sean and Suzanne to know that I am putting them on probation.

Image Credits:
1. The cast of Hot in Cleveland
2. Betty White sasses as Polish neighbor Elka
3. Producer Sean Hayes with the show’s cast

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I Love Shari: My Queerly Feminist Life with TV
Alexander Doty / Indiana University



Shari Lewis and Lambchop

Shari Lewis

Since this is my first column for FlowTV, I thought I might reveal a few secrets about my televisual past in order to provide a suggestive background for later columns by indicating some of the ways television has called out to my queerness and feminism. If television didn’t exactly make me queer or a feminist, it provided almost daily feeding and provoking of what became the queer and the feminist in me. Of course, I am (re)reading my televisual past as the person and the scholar I am now. But even though I didn’t understand my early television fascinations as “queer” or “gay” or “feminist” at the time, I still think this simultaneously autobiographical and critical exercise is one valuable way of constructing intertwined personal and cultural televisual histories that (re)place queerness and feminism deep within the heart of the mainstream.

Out of the haze of a black-and-white television set come my first role models: Shari Lewis and Captain Kangaroo. Shari was perky-with-a-ponytail personified, and she was smart: a multi-talented dynamo who was a ventriloquist, singer, dancer, and musician (and, I later discovered, a writer and producer). But what really drew me to Shari was Lambchop, one of her hand puppets. Where Shari was sweet and patient, Lambchop was selfish and opinionated. Where Shari would sing about cooperation and sharing, Lambchop would loudly demand attention and bling. For a sissy Catholic Army brat, Shari was the sensible and accomplished person I felt I should strive to become, but Lambchop was the show-offy diva this frustrated queer boy often wanted to be. She was, in short, the Miss Piggy for my generation.


The Patty Duke Show

Patty and Cathy on The Patty Duke Show

This was not the last time I would become fascinated by a Jekyll-and-Hyde pair on television. At around age ten, I transferred my Shari-and-Lambchop love to Patty and Cathy of The Patty Duke Show (a ripoff of the Haley Mills film The Parent Trap, which I also loved, loved, loved). Sophisticated, intellectual, European Cathy and her wacky free-spirited “twin” American cousin Patty offered distinct and appealing psycho-social choices for a girly bookwormy tween who was also dying to do something attention-getting. What The Patty Duke Show had that The Shari Lewis Show did not was the “twins played by the same actor” gimmick, which heightened the show’s suggestion that one person could have two distinct personas because who you “were” was really just a big performance. After all, Patty and Cathy would often completely fool other people—even parents and boyfriends—by pretending to be each other. My attempts at being both Patty and Cathy throughout late grade school and well into junior high did pay off. A combination of Patty’s manic energy and Cathy’s verbal dexterity allowed me to flummox most sissy-bashing boys—and I was named both “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Class Clown.”


Captain Kangaroo

Captain Kangaroo

If Shari, Lambchop, Patty, and Cathy represented the women I wanted to be, Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) showed me the man I could be. A far cry from the Army men and jocks surrounding me at home and at school, the husky Captain Kangaroo was soft-spoken, considerate, a good listener, and had a lovely relationship with another man, the lanky farmer Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum). He may have been a “Captain,” but he never ordered people around, being more concerned that everyone was comfortable, happy, and learning something new every day.

But if I identified with the Captain, my early televisual heartthrobs ran more along the lines of Mr. Green Jeans: tall, dark, sinewy, and laconic. Sort of like my father, actually. As it turns out, I have my father to thank for introducing me to my first set of TV dream men (well, there was Mighty Mouse, but we won’t go into that now). The “Master of the Channel Changer Knob” (and, later, “King of the Remote”) favored action-adventure shows. Given the choice, I would never have watched Bonanza, Combat, or Rawhide. But once I discovered Adam Cartwright/Pernell Roberts, Lt. Gil Hanley/Rick Jason, and Rowdy Yates/Clint Eastwood, nothing could keep me from lying in front of the television set (a position that allowed for some discreet erotic “fidgeting” against the carpet) when these shows were on.


Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartright on Bonanza

Hunky Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartright on Bonanza

I was most obsessed with Adam, who always dressed in black, revealed chest hair, and sported an impressive five o’clock shadow. Who wouldn’t fall for this dark, stylish hunk of bad boy rough trade? Well, my sisters, for two, who preferred the sensitive, smooth, pretty boy Little Joe/Michael Landon. And there, my friends, is the difference between a queer boy moving toward a “gay clone” young adulthood in the 1970s and straight girls moving toward an “I’ll get married, but he’d better not tell me what to do” future. I sometimes wonder whether my devotion to these shows gave my father some dim hope that I might turn out to be a straight boy, after all—or if that squirming on the carpet wasn’t as discreet as I thought.


That Girl

Marlo Thomas as That Girl

As I entered my teens, television started to become all about sitcoms, especially sitcoms centered around women: Bewitched, The Lucy Show, That Girl, Julia, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, Rhoda, Laverne and Shirley, Alice, Designing Women, The Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, Kate and Allie, and Roseanne. Many of these series later seemed to be perfect examples of Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Certainly there were sharp and strong women characters in American drama series from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, particularly in large ensemble dramas like Hill Street Blues, LA Law, St. Elsewhere and ER. But, aside from Cagney and Lacey and Murder, She Wrote, television drama was not where women were consistently being placed front-and-center to cut loose and dominate the proceedings. Even though they are technically variety shows, I’m going to include Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show here because the former was always about Lily Tomlin, Joanne Worley, and Ruth Buzzi for me (not so much the then ditzy, bikini-clad Goldie Hawn), while The Carol Burnett Show, among its other glories, developed its own sitcom-within-a-variety-show, Mama’s Family.


Liz Lemon

Liz Lemon doesn’t quite cut it


If I’ve missed anything on 21st-century American television, it has been the dearth of women-centered sitcoms (OK, the dearth of good sitcoms, period). Yes, there were Sex and the City and The New Adventures of Old Christine, and, no, I don’t consider Desperate Housewives or Ugly Betty sitcoms. Recent shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation can’t really be called woman-focused, even if Tina Fey and Amy Pohler perform in, co-produce, and occasionally write for them. Should I give Cougar Town a try? I certainly will be watching (and may report on) Hot in Cleveland, a new TV Land series that promises some good, old-fashioned, female sitcom pleasure just by bringing together Betty White (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls), Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me), Valerie Bertinelli (One Day at a Time), and Jane Leeves (Frasier). People keep telling me that I need to watch Weeds, The United States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie, but I haven’t subscribed to pay cable stations in over ten years. Maybe it’s time to start again.

Image Credits:
1. Shari Lewis
2. Patty and Cathy on The Patty Duke Show
3. Captain Kangaroo
4. Hunky Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartright on Bonanza
5. Marlo Thomas as That Girl
6. Liz Lemon doesn’t quite cut it

Please feel free to comment.