A change in format! It’s Pride Month so I get to wield repercussionless power with reckless abandon. In honor of that rare gay privilege, this is a special Pride edition of The Daily Beast’s Obsessed: A roundup of the Very Special Gay Episodes of TV that shaped me, and how you can watch them.
Growing up in the ’90s obsessively watching reruns of sitcoms was formative in a way I don’t think I really processed until later: comedies from the ’70s and ’80s were more far more progressive and compassionate than the ones that aired in the ’90s and early 2000s. It’s only in recent years did we cycle back again to the social missions of those shows.
Of particular note was the way in which they handled society’s evolving attitudes towards the LGBT community. While the ’90s saw the premiere of Will & Grace and Ellen’s coming out episode, it was also an era of gay-panic comedy, dressed up in a laughtrack as tolerance.
By comparison, Very Special Episodes of classic sitcoms, schmaltzy and heavy-handed as they may have been, brought ideas that were radical at the time not only about acceptance, but visibility and anger, too, into living rooms in meaningful ways. (I’m also noticing how many of the episodes feature strong women making an insecure gay man feel safe.)
To celebrate that, here’s a look back at some of the Very Special Episodes that shaped me.
Designing Women - “Killing All the Right People” (1987)
I once had the opportunity to interview Scandal’s Hot President Fitz, Tony Goldwyn, and used an embarrassing amount of my time with him to ask about his one episode guest starring on Designing Women, in which he plays a friend of the girls who asks them to plan his funeral, as he’s been diagnosed with AIDS. (That Goldwyn was noticeably thrilled to talk about the episode speaks volumes about him, too.)
When an uppity bitch of a friend learns that Sugarbaker & Associates is planning the funeral, she chastises them because, as far as she’s concerned, the disease is “killing all the right people.” This sets Dixie Carter’s Julia off: “The only thing worse than all these people who never had any morals before AIDS is all you holier-than-thou types who think you’re exempt from getting it.” And then the kicker: “I’ve known you for 27 years, and all I can say is if God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as punishment for sinning, then you would be at the free clinic all the time.”
It’s an episode that confronts bigotry, clarifies myths about AIDS, raises awareness of the crippling epidemic, and is staunchly gay-positive in an unexpectedly overt way. That may not have been the night the lights went out in Georgia. But it was, just so you know and all your children may someday know, the afternoon I sobbed on my living room couch watching reruns on Lifetime.
Designing Women is not available for streaming. (Homophobia!) But Julia’s epic speech is on YouTube here.
The Golden Girls - “Sisters of the Bride” (1991)
The ladies of The Golden Girls, all these years later, are as cherished as ever by the gay community, a legitimately profound connection and legacy explored in everything from thinkpieces to the HBO series Looking. (I mean kaftans, sex, and cheesecake: I get it.)
It tackled LGBTQ topics several times, including in one phenomenal episode in which Estelle Getty’s Sophia struggles to come to terms with her son’s love of cross-dressing after he dies. But it’s 1991’s “Sisters of the Bride,” in which Rue McClanahan’s Blanche can’t come to terms with her brother’s desire to have a same-sex commitment ceremony with his partner that I remember most, for how sensitively it explored people’s complicated feelings about homosexuality at the time.
“I can accept the fact that he’s gay, but why does he have to slip a ring on his finger so the whole world will know?” she says. It’s Sophia who, after asking Blanche to reflect on what it meant to her to marry her late husband, George, gets her to reconsider her viewpoint: “That’s what Doug and Clayton want, too. Everyone wants someone to grow old with, and shouldn’t everyone get that chance?”
All in the Family - “Judging Books By Covers” (1971)
Rob Reiner’s Mike invites an effeminate man named Gary over for lunch, and Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker keeps referring to him as a “fairy” and “sweetie pie,” even though Gary actually isn’t gay. Later in the episode, Archie learns that one of his drinking buddies Steve, a former football player and all-around guy’s guy, is gay. Archie learns his lesson; the episode gets its title. President Nixon reportedly watched the episode and hated it. He called it “distasteful.” How rich! (The show tackled the idea of gay acceptance several more times in its run, which is truly remarkable.)
Maude - “Maude’s New Friend” (1974)
It should come as no surprise that Norman Lear was at the forefront of bringing tolerance and understanding into the homes of Americans, doing so on many of his shows while other hit series at the time would only feature gay characters in the service of punchlines where someone accidentally hits on a gay person. Hilarity!
On Maude, Bea Arthur’s Maude befriends a gay author and tries to impress him with how liberal and progressive she is, only to learn that, despite her best intentions, she still has biases to work through. (Later in the series, Maude flips a shit when she learns that her husband is trying to prevent a gay bar from opening in the neighborhood. Maude is an ally!)
That multiple series starring Bea Arthur also show up on this list shouldn’t be surprising. Arthur was a true ally and advocate, leaving $300,000 in her will to the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth. And obviously, her characters are icons. So many gay men saw Dorothy Zbornak hear someone say something dumbass-stupid and flash that exasperated, sarcastic glare and, for the first time, they felt seen.
Watch the episode on DailyMotion.
The Facts of Life - “Rough Housing” (1979)
While I think I would have actually died hearing Charlotte Rae in Mrs. Garrett’s sing-song voice warmly coo, “Lesbians!,” the word is not actually used in the episode of The Facts of Life that is very much about lesbians. Still, the message is the next best thing. Cindy (Julie Anne Haddock) confides in Mrs. Garrett that because she prefers tomboy clothes, likes sports, and doesn’t have interest in boys, she feels like she’s not “normal.” Mrs. Garrett tells her that maybe she’ll like boys one day and maybe she won’t, but she is certainly normal and must never change who she is. OK, Mrs. Garrett!
Watch the episode on DailyMotion.
Gimme a Break! - “The Chief’s Gay Evening” (1982)
The Chief (Dolph Sweet) makes a homophobic joke, which causes one of his officers to come out as gay and attempt to explain to him why the joke was offensive. To illustrate how hurtful it is to hear a derogatory joke at your expense because of your identity, he tells the chief some Polish jokes. “What’s the matter, Carl, don’t you think that’s funny?” “Of course not, I’m Polish.” “That’s why I don’t like gay jokes.” It’s not, like, the most nuanced or world-changing matter. But it was on Gimme a Break! That matters! (While I have you: We do not talk about Nell Carter enough!)
Watch the episode on YouTube.
Wings - “There’s Always Room for Cello” (1990)
Did you know that Wings ran for eight seasons? (For much of the decade, it was the awkward hanger-on of NBC’s buzzy Must-See TV lineup.) More, did you know it had one of the best Very Special Gay Episodes of the ’90s? In “There’s Always Room for Cello,” R.J. (Abraham Benrubi), the son of cantankerous boss Roy (David Schramm), comes out as gay. It stands out for being a coming out episode where the coming out isn’t fraught.
He says he’s had the feelings for a long time, but hadn’t “found anything to be gay with,” which is an impressively real and specific observation to articulate in a ’90s multicam laughtrack sitcom. The whole thing is so healthy: He says after he had the realization, he went to the library to read about it. The self-awareness! The well-adjustedness! Soon he’s telling everyone, and even planning Nantucket’s Pride Parade.
There are, of course, hammy jokes tinged with homophobia and gay panic that wouldn’t fly today, and things don’t necessarily go smoothly with his father. But it’s such a wonderful, positive episode, in a sea of heavy, tortured ones. Now as we did then, we’ve all been sleeping on Wings!
What to watch this week:
Toy Story 4: You will laugh and cry and contemplate the sentience of toys and the meaning of life.
Years and Years: The summer of Emma Thompson!
Wild Rose: We’re all about to be talking about Jessie Buckley.
What to skip this week:
Child’s Play: This couldn’t be more “not for me.”
The Hills: New Beginnings: This could be fun and campy, but bringing this back without Lauren Conrad and Kristin Cavallari is sacrilegious.