TV’s Power to Change Lives

 

Empire Jamal Jussie Smollett

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Pictured: Jussie Smollett as Jamal in the ‘Empire’  finale | Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX

LGBT-inclusive shows have been trending for years, but that two of the season’s biggest hits—Empire and How to Get Away with Murder—featured gay characters in sexual scenarios on Fox and ABC has defied typical ratings logic.

The former, created by award-winning director Lee Daniels (alongside straight writer Danny Strong), channels Daniels’s childhood experiences with homophobia in the African-American community into a melodrama about gay R&B star-in-training Jamal Lyon as he fights his family for power while looking for love.Daniels told Out that working on the show has also already changed mega-producer Timbaland’s “opinion on how he feels about gays.”

“He really had this epiphany,” Daniels said. “It was beautiful, and it deepened our friendship.”

Murder comes from Shonda Rhimes’s protégé Pete Nowalk, who made headlines by having gay character Connor rim a man in the pilot. “Putting out the character on network TV, especially someone who’s young and confident, is very important to me,” Nowalk explains. As for the racy sex, Nowalk says the scene made it into the story because it shows part of who Connor is. “He’s sexual, and he can use that to his benefit, but it’s also just one of the ways that he lives and feels good.”

For years, gay men and women toiled in the shadows of Hollywood, crafting funny and heartbreaking narratives for mainstream America. Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), Darren Star (Sex and the City), and Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives) were among those who ruled the airwaves in the late ’90s and early aughts, but with content focused largely on women and families. Now, similar creatives are openly discussing their personal lives and translating them into stories for the rest of the world. American Horror Story was created by Power List regular Ryan Murphy, whose groundbreaking Glee ended this year. Arrow and its hit spin-off, The Flash (with a gay villain played by openly gay actor Andy Mientus), have Greg Berlanti at the helm. Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige, along with executive producers Greg Gugliotta and Joanna Johnson, have made The Fosters a mainstay. And when it comes to HBO’s The Comeback and Looking, there’s practically a gay man at every level of production, including Dan Bucatinsky, Michael Lannan, and Andrew Haigh.

Considering that Berlanti had to threaten to quit his job to get the first gay prime-time kiss on Dawson’s Creek just 15 years ago, TV has come a long way in terms of the real, open, sexual, complicated (and sometimes boring) LGBT characters now found on nearly every network, as well as the streaming sites Netflix and Amazon.Berlanti has made it a point to include gay characters in everything he’s done and has seen a cultural evolution. “It’s rewarding when you talk to younger writers and directors who say that they saw something that you did and that it had an impact on them,” he explains. “I like to think I’ve played a small, small part in some of that.”

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