It’s All Relative

It was only a matter of time before gay men on television were “promoted” to parenthood. While lesbian couples with kids have been featured on sitcoms (Friends) and hour-long dramas (Queer as Folk), and have been the focus of made-for-TV movies (What Makes a Family [2001]) and afterschool specials (Other Mothers [1993]), we’ve seen far fewer male couples on TV raising children. Thanks to two landmark rulings this past summer — the first by the Canadian Supreme Court, which declared Ontario’s legal definition of “spouse” as someone of the opposite sex unconstitutional, and the second by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down state laws banning sodomy –gay marriage is now officially a national issue.

So ABC and the creators of the new sitcom It’s All Relative, starring Christopher Sieber and John Benjamin Hickey as a gay couple with a teenage daughter, should consider themselves lucky. Their timing couldn’t be better. Unfortunately, the fact the series depicts a gay couple in a long-term relationship who are also responsible parents is the only thing unique about this otherwise formulaic (and very loud) sitcom that is heavy on insult humor, but light on laughs.

In the premiere episode, a young couple in their early 20s, Bobby (Reid Scott) and Liz (Maggie Lawson), announce their engagement to their respective parents, who are both convinced the union is a sure recipe for disaster. Bobby, who hails from a working class family, tends bar for his father, Mason “Mace” O’Neil (Lenny Clarke), an intolerant, loudmouth Irish Catholic who owns a Boston pub with his wife Audrey (Harriet Sansom Harris). Liz is the adopted daughter of two bourgeois gay men, schoolteacher Simon (Sieber) and art gallery owner Phillip (Hickey), who raised her since her mother died. If the premise sounds familiar, it’s because it rehashes another sitcom that debuted in the same time slot back in 1999, Dharma & Greg, in which the love child of two middle-aged ex-hippies marries into a rich WASP family.

This time around, the differences between the two families are more severe. The primary showdown in the premiere involved the two most opposite and verbal characters: Mace, a working class, conservative, homophobic Republican who refers to his son’s future in-laws as “pansies” and a “freak show,” vs. Phillip, an upscale Harvard grad who disapproves of his daughter marrying an uneducated bartender with a family that “guzzles beer and eats cabbage.” The episode plays out like a boxing match, with the two dads repeatedly going at each other in the ring and then going back to their respective corners, where they receive some words of wisdom from their respective spouses.

Consequently, It’s All Relative is an equal opportunity offender. The put-downs and name-calling come flying from both sides, which no doubt gives the show’s creators the artistic license to use anti-gay remarks. By making the queers upscale and snobbish, the writers no doubt feel they can justify Mace’s anti-gay remarks. After all, isn’t Phillip guilty of putting down the O’Neils for being working class and uneducated?

While this might be someone’s idea of progress, I think most gay activists agree that their struggle for equality didn’t include being represented on TV in the same dopey and nasty fashion as heterosexuals. The writers need to tone down the insults, make the parents as likeable as their kids, and maybe keep Phillip and Mace apart for the first few episodes so they can be more developed before they head into the ring for the second round.

The cast is talented, headed by Clark, a veteran stand-up comic, and Hickey, who bears a close resemblance to David Hyde-Pierce (the neurotic and snobbish Phillip has much in common with both Niles and Frasier Crane). Surprisingly, the two stronger performances are delivered by their respective spouses, played by Sieber and Tony winner Harris, who last appeared together on Broadway in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Their comic talents shine in their handling of subtle lines, as they attempt to keep the peace and get their spouses to do the right thing. Audrey appeals to Mace’s duty as a husband and father, while Simon reminds a judgmental Phillip (under his breath) that he’s “turning into his mother.”

For myself, who advocates more diverse gay and lesbian characters in primetime, It’s All Relative is a disappointment. Gay characters, like their heterosexual counterparts, can certainly have an edge. And they don’t necessarily have to be likable. But when a show is content with having them sink to the same level on television as their oppressors, nobody wins.