When looking back on the legacy of LGBT characters in series, the first shows what come to mind are “Will & Grace” or “Queer as Folk” but what about “NYPD Blue” and, even further back, “Doogie Howser, MD?”
Those latter two series have one thing in common – executive producer Steven Bochco, who put his stamp on network television with groundbreaking and innovative series like “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law,” and was also an innovator because he was a producer who regularly put LGBT characters in his series.
And, unlike a lot of television in the ’80s and ’90s, the gay characters were not only seen but were characters who coexisted with the straight characters. Sure, their sexuality was sometimes the subject of a storyline but there were also times when the LGBT characters were just a part of the world that Bochco created.
For example, Bill Brochtrup, was added to the tough and gritty “NYPD Blue” and served the purpose of highlighting the bigoted nature of Detective Andy Sipowicz (played by Dennis Franz) but over the years, Brochtrup’s John Irvin became one of the family, even babysitting for Andy’s kids in later seasons. There were also barriers broken through surprising moments like the 1991 episode of “L.A. Law” where C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) unexpectedly kisses Abby Perkins (Michele Greene).
If you hadn’t noticed, Bochco is still out there creating series and his latest, “Murder in the First” premiered last month on TNT. Starring Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson and Tom Felton, the series spends the 10 episodes of its first season focused on one homicide case.
Last month while in NYC for the Turner Upfront Presentation, I had the chance to chat with Bochco about the inclusion of gay characters in his series over the years when not too many other shows were doing so.
XFINITY: You’ve been putting gay characters in your shows before other people were. What do you make of where we’re at today where things have changed because of shows like “NYPD Blue?”
Steven Bochco: There really has been a remarkable sea change in the culture and I think television’s had a lot to do with it. A younger generation of Americans who have grown up watching these shows, who are no longer threatened by their gay friends, brothers, sisters as they come out. And realize, ‘well, these are just my family, my friends, people I know.’ You know, all that homophobic terror that men in particular have. But, I mean, that’s the start. I think that was some atavistic terror, that a lot of men had and it’s just crazy. It’s just so misplaced, there’s no place for that.
That’s why all of this Donald Sterling stuff was so shocking because it’s the same kind of ignorance. It’s that same kind of mindless fear that exposes itself that way. For me, doing the shows that I’ve done over the years…it’s funny, I just started watching the old “Hill Streets” again because they came out with that 12 disc set and I hadn’t watched one in over 30 years. I remember…my God, we had wonderful gay characters in that first season of “Hill Street” when I guess it was still a little surprising to do that.
Did you ever get pushback in those days? If it was the first season, it was before “Hill Street” really broke through.
SB: No. In fact, I remember off that first season or second season we actually wound up getting the GLAAD award. I said, ‘well one of these days no one’s going to give out that award because you won’t have to.’ It’s just goofy. So it’s very nice to see that at least in that arena of our culture people younger people have turned that corner.
I remember watching “Hill Street Blues” when I was maybe a freshman in high school and I wasn’t out yet but I’d watch it and be like ‘oh wow there’s a story here and they’re giving attention to this.’ I can’t help but think if those things didn’t happen in a mainstream show, we wouldn’t have “Will and Grace” or “Modern Family” where you have gay characters that just got married!
SB: And then you had Ellen coming out and Neil coming out was extraordinary, that was big. When we did “Doogie Howser,” Neil was 16 and he was 16 going on 12. He looked like a 12 year old. I think we knew Neil was gay before he knew he was gay. Because I think he was so young and he grew up in a very kind of normal, Western family in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He grew into his sexuality in such an elegant way that he finally casually, comfortably revealed himself and that was big. This is “Doogie Howser” for God’s sake.
And now you have the casual coming outs where you don’t have to be on the cover of People or The Advocate. It’s just put out there and that’s that.
SB: It is rapidly getting to the point where no one will have to bother to come out because no one will be hiding. There’s no place to come out from.
“Murder in the First” airs Mondays at 10pm on TNT.