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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Not-So-Straight Sweep

By Belinda Acosta

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Ah, February ... The month of hearts and flowers, chocolates and sweet nothings, not to mention the commercial networks' first ratings sweeps period of the year. Therefore, love, sex, and romance -- in all its sweaty, sweet, and sinful aspects -- is the featured pleasure of the month. Gone are the days of straight-as-an-arrow relationships. Hold the passion. The days of Lucy and Ricky, or Rob and Laura Petrie sleeping in separate beds strikes today's TV audiences as quaint, and marriage has little to do with who is bedding whom and for what reason. Take a look at these sweeps-inspired offerings:Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2/13 & 16, 8pm, CBS). The ordinarily respectable Sam Neil stars in this potentially pulpy, two-part mini-series about Thomas Jefferson's love affair with slave Sally Hemings. Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) loses his virginity on 3rd Rock From the Sun (2/15, 7:30pm, NBC). Reese Witherspoon continues her short-term stint on Friends as Rachel's kid sister and sparks a sibling rivalry over guess who? Amy (Amy Brenneman) on Judging Amy gets to flirt with Gregory Harrison. Carmen Electra hosted a World's Sexiest Commercials on Fox, and on the WB's Angel, David Boreanaz got enticed by a mysterious and dangerous woman, played by guest star Bai Ling.

What is making a more pronounced appearance this year is the proliferation of gay-themed, or rather gay-flavored, situations. No longer the exclusive ingredient in those "very special episodes," gay relationships and situations are now appearing front and center in prime-time programming. That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. Same-sex couplings are still overwhelmingly seen as unusual, funny, titillating, and always less serious than a "normal" heterosexual relationship. Take the now-famous lip-locking scene of Ally and Ling on Ally McBeal (Fox) and the more recent girl-on-girl action on the WB's Popular. Neither of those two events did much in terms of supporting gay relationships on prime time but did much to raise squeals and ratings.

Last Thursday night's Frasier had Martin (John Mahoney) posing as a gay man in order to enhance son Frasier's (Kelsey Grammer) romantic chances with a woman, while a recent episode of the disappointing City of Angels (Wednesdays, 7pm, CBS) featured the tired, "gay man comes into the emergency room with a foreign object stuck in an unusual place" story. The hospital staff snickers, are reminded of their call to help all who pass through their doors, and are redeemed for retrieving the mantle of their superiority, brushing it off, and setting off to treat another of the unwashed masses. Where's that XO&#! remote!

This month, two programs show promise in opening up the representation of same-sex relationships on prime time, the WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Will & Grace on NBC.

Die-hard Buffy fans felt Willow's (Alyson Hannigan) heartbreak when her troubled boyfriend Oz (Seth Green) left her (and the show) to find himself. Since then, she's been moping around campus while helping Buff get through her freshman year. She also found herself a friend in fellow witch Tara (Amber Benson), who, from the beginning, you could tell had sweet little crush on Willow. Other entertainment media describe the Dec. 14 episode when sparks began to fly between Willow and Tara as the scene in which they "suggestively clasped hands [showing] they were interested in making more than just supernatural magic together." That description is a bit over the top. What happened was much more subtle. Through trying to unite forces to levitate a rose, remove the petals one by one, and deposit them in a cup (a way to practice their witchy powers), a burst of energy is released into the room, whipping the rose around them and leaving it plucked and charred before them. When Willow later tells Buffy what happened, she is oblivious to the fact that it was Tara's attraction to her that jettisoned the rose.

Though the Willow-Tara storyline makes an appearance this month (as does Oz -- what do you expect? It's sweeps month), there is no word on how long it will last. Series creator Joss Whedon doesn't want to make an issue of it, hoping instead to simply develop the relationship and see where it takes the characters.

However, GLADD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has higher hopes for the Willow storyline. "If Willow is lesbian and all the characters accept her, maybe the straight viewers will accept the lesbian sitting next to them in homeroom," said GLADD's entertainment media director, Scott Seomin. Maybe. I'll settle for a happy Willow in a relationship that is treated with respect, grace, and sure, some of that Whedon humor that gives Buffy its distinctiveness.

Billed as "the moment of passion you thought you'd never see," a special hourlong episode of Will & Grace on Feb. 15 features the pals taking their friendship to a different level. The problem is, Will is gay and Grace is straight. The show has been toying all season with the ongoing push-pull of the pair, and just in time for sweeps, they are satisfying some viewers' hopes that they would get together the "way it should be." I, for one, hope they don't. Though I think it would be an interesting development for them to explore a sexual relationship, the idea of Will "going straight" would stray from the original premise of the show, which was to show a man and woman as good friends without the expectation of sex. Besides that, the intimacy Will and Grace share is not a sexual one, which must confuse a lot of people who confuse sex and intimacy to begin with. Though I've not seen a preview of the "special" episode, I'm holding my breath that this once witty and sophisticated sitcom does not deteriorate into dramedy for the sole purpose of boosting ratings.

On the serious side, the acclaimed PBS series Frontline will feature a look at hate crimes toward homosexuals in Assault on Gay America (2/15, 10pm). The brutal murder of 39-year-old Billy Jack Gaither in February of 1999 by two men, one of whom claims to have been angered that Gaither made an unwanted pass at him, is the springboard for the larger discussion of the conflicting views of homosexuality in the U.S.

"While a majority of Americans have come to believe that homosexuals deserve the same rights as straight citizens, almost half of them believe that homosexuality is a "sin' or "wrong,'" press material asserts. "This mix of acceptance and contempt, tolerance and prejudice, exists within many Americans."

Interviews with Gaither's murderers, his gay sister, and members of the religious right complete the hourlong documentary. A viewer's guide and other material for the program can be accessed after the program at the Frontline Web site at http://www.pbs.org/frontline.


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