In 1994, German director Sonke Wortmann released Der Bewegte Mann (Maybe, Maybe Not), a comedy exploring the shaky definitions of sexual orientation. Based on a series of comic books by Ralf Konig, the film was the tale of a handsome young straight man thrown out on the street by his girlfriend and forced to live with a gay man he barely knows. Konig’s idea and Wortmann’s adaptation were Americanized in 1997, as the film Kiss Me, Guido. In this version, a straight New York Italian stud takes up residence with a gay man after answering an ad for a roommate, mistakenly thinking that “GWM” (Gay White Male) means “Guy With Money.” The independent film was a minor success and has since become a cult favorite with gay audiences.
CBS’ new sitcom, Some of My Best Friends, is the latest incarnation of this story. Some of My Best Friends relies heavily on its predecessors. In fact, it just plain steals from them. The series premiere was like a Reader’s Digest version of Kiss Me, Guido, with a few changes so that the writers couldn’t be accused of total plagiarism. Muscle-bound Frankie Zito (Danny Nucci) leaves his parents’ Bronx home to make it on his own as an actor. Desperate for an affordable place, Frankie answers an ad for a roommate that repeats the same “GWM” joke verbatim; this is a shame, because it wasn’t that funny the first time and only serves to make Frankie look like a moron. Still, the two seem to hit it off, and Frankie moves in with the recently dumped, recently fired Warren (Jason Bateman), the straightest-acting gay man on television since Rock Hudson was on Dynasty. Initially, Frankie thinks that the Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler pictures in Warren’s living room mean that Warren is Jewish. But, following his “duh” moment, Frankie announces that he can’t live with a homosexual, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Then Warren’s ex shows up, and Warren recruits Frankie to step in as his new flame. Frankie’s two-minute performance as a gay man opens his eyes to his own prejudice (in Guido, he subbed for the ailing roomie in a gay play and was enlightened). Warren and Frankie decide they can accept one another, and set up the kind of rules that are the basis for lasting relationships—Warren can’t play show tunes all day, and Frankie can’t watch football all the time. And thus, The Odd Couple Meets Will & Grace is born.
At least, that’s what CBS would want you to think. The only problem with that formulation is that The Odd Couple and Will & Grace are funny. Some of My Best Friends is not. It does have some pleasing moments, most due to the talents of the cast. Bateman and Nucci are no strangers to series television, despite their youth. Bateman is best known for his stint as a minor teen heartthrob while on The Hogan Family and as Justine Bateman’s brother, and Nucci has been guest-starring on various series since he was a child (Family Ties, Magnum, PI), as well as appearing in minor roles in major films (he was Leonardo DiCaprio’s bunkmate in Titanic).
These two, along with veteran actors Camille Saviola and Joe Grifasi as Frankie’s parents, have the skill to make the most out of the show’s few good lines, but it is evident they are all working hard. Some of My Best Friends‘s biggest problem is its blatant reinforcement of tired stereotypes. The most obvious of these comes in Frankie, who is like a thousand other New York Italian characters. Frankie’s gorgeousness is a major point in the development of his relationship with Warren, since it’s common knowledge that a gay man can’t be around a man this good-looking without his hormones going into overdrive. While not irrational with lust, Warren and his best friend and neighbor Vern (Alec Mapa) can’t believe Warren’s good luck in landing a roommate who’s so young, hung, and dumb. Frankie knows he is a stud, and Warren takes advantage of this knowledge to trick him into defeat during an arm-wrestling match meant to settle an argument, like so: Warren: “You know why I wanted to arm wrestle?” Frankie: “No. Why?” Warren: “So I could touch you.” This naturally causes Frankie to freak out because a gay man is holding his hand, and Warren easily wins the match.
Frankie is not the only familiar type on the show. Take Warren, a gay man with no hint of homosexuality in his personality and demeanor; this all-American boy next door appears to have walked off the set of Boy Meets World or Two Guys and a Girl. If he didn’t announce he was gay, no one would ever think he was. On the other end of the spectrum of gay characters is flaming queen Vern, who is limp-wristed, small-framed, soft-spoken, and crazy for any man who is even slightly attractive. In addition, Vern is eager to offer his personal interpretation of every situation he witnesses and is convinced that his advice is always correct, which reinforces the idea of the gay man as a busy-body forever intruding into the affairs of others. Vern seems to be a degenerated copy of Jack, Will’s best friend on Will & Grace: where Jack’s antics are a humorous extension of Will’s own self-aggrandizing, Vern’s pushiness is just annoying. Were he my neighbor, I would pretend I wasn’t home when he came to visit.
The other characters are equally stock: Meryl (Jessica Lundy), Warren’s twice-divorced sister and landlord, lusts after Frankie while simultaneously declaring that all men are worthless; Pino (Michael DeLuise), Frankie’s best friend, is the average second banana, supporting his friend and feeding him straight lines (no pun intended); and Frankie’s meddlesome mother and henpecked father are less concerned about the possibility that their son might be or turn gay as a result of his new housing arrangement, than they are devastated that he wants to be an actor. None of the characters show the least hint of originality.
I had hoped that as the series progressed, it would develop its own identity and break away from the cliches so evident in the first episode. And so, against my better judgment, I forced myself to sit through the show’s second episode. My hopes were quickly dashed. The plot of the second episode stuck by the formula: the roommates have difficulty reconciling their different sexual preferences with their own lifestyles, but everyone learns to be nice and understanding by show’s end. The stereotypes were only reinforced here, only this time by characters’ comments about one another, rather than their own actions and dialogue. For instance, Pino looks at Warren’s selection of food in the refrigerator (kiwis, tofu, and the like) and calls it “fairy food.” When Frankie’s gang from the old neighborhood comes over to watch a big boxing match on tv, Warren is worried because one of them is an ex-con and they all look like “Neanderthals.” None of Frankie’s friends believe that the effeminate Vern could possibly fix the television when it breaks, until Vern points out that he is “Asian,” which, of course, means he must be a whiz at electronics. (In a possible backtrack from stereotypes, it turns out that Vern has lied, thus making him the only Asian in New York who isn’t a technological genius.) If this second episode is any indication, the chance that the show will break away from its Guido influence is slight, as the series seems determined to trod over the same old material from the film, episode after dull episode.
In an ideal television world, the writers and producers would block out any memory of Kiss Me, Guido from their minds, and start to explore in an intelligent and witty manner the bond that can grow between two men of different backgrounds. In an ideal world, Bateman and Nucci would be cast in a series by the creators of Everybody Loves Raymond or Frasier, and so be working with the well-written and funny material they deserve. And in this ideal world, CBS would schedule a show that celebrates the gay and Italian communities, not degrades them. But we don’t live in that ideal world, so we are stuck with this piece of mindless dribble, which is forgettable at its best and insulting at its worst. If you really are interested in the story told in Some of My Best Friends, rent Maybe, Maybe Not. Sure, you’ll have to read subtitles, but watching a two-hour film will save you so much time compared to watching the same tale feebly retold in Some of My Best Friends.