In 1989, in the third season of the bellwether ABC series thirtysomething,
a secondary gay character, Russell, was shown lying in bed with another man.
The two men never touch, but they’re clearly having post-sex pillow-talk,
discussing their first girlfriends and other friends lost to AIDS. At the time, just the subtle suggestion of
sex between two men was revolutionary.
And sure enough, it caused a firestorm of controversy.
Sponsors pulled their ads, and the episode was not shown during summer reruns.
On May 11th, the ABC series Brothers &
Sisters will broadcast the finale to its second season, and it will include a
wedding ceremony between Kevin (Matthew Rhys), one of the leads on the show,
and his boyfriend, Scotty (Luke MacFarlane).
Luke MacFarlane (left) & Matthew Rhys
Photo credit Michael Desmond / ABC
Since its fall 2006 debut, many observers have noted how Brothers
& Sisters has treated its multiple gay characters almost exactly as it’s
treated its straight ones, even showing many scenes of same-sex affection and
post-coital intimacy, to little controversy.
In short, almost twenty years after that landmark thirtysomething
episode, the landscape for gays on television couldn’t look more different.
And ironically, two of the men involved with thirtysomething
are now also involved with Brothers & Sisters. Ken Olin, who played thirtysomething
hunk Michael Steadman, co-created Brothers & Sisters with Jon Robin Baitz
and now executive produces the show, as well as sometimes directing and acting
Meanwhile, David Marshall Grant, who played the gay
character of Russell on thirtysomething, is now a story editor and writer on Brothers
Between the two of them, they’ve seen these changes in the
gay television landscape up close.
Ken Olin (left) & David Marshall Grant
Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown (left) & Thos Robinson (right) /Getty Images)
“It was all part of a landscape that was changing anyway,”
Ken Olin tells AfterElton.com of his days on thirtysomething, which was
considered cutting edge at the time. “There had always been discussions about
if Mel Harris [who played Olin’s wife, Hope, on the show] was going to wear her
underwear in a scene, if we could actually be in bed together. Movies were
doing more sexual content, and HBO and all those things were on the rise, and
there was a need to compete.”
But there still was a very definite line in the sand
regarding gay-related content. David Marshall Grant has clear memories of the
restrictions placed on him and fellow actor Peter Frechette while filming thirtysomething’s
infamous gays-in-bed scene.
“We were told that if we touched each other in any way under
the covers, that it wouldn’t go on the air,” he says now. “Watching the scene,
all I see is how completely stiff we were. We were so afraid we might actually
touch. But other than that, it was a very typical day. We shot it; it went
fine. It was only after it aired that I realized how many advertisers pulled
out. I used to walk around saying I cost ABC twelve million dollars last night,
or whatever it was.”
The scene, part of an episode written by Richard Kramer, an
out gay man, originally included both kissing and hugging — both pretty typical
fare on the show. But that was all eliminated in negotiations with the network,
leaving just the two of them in bed.
Olin, who hadn’t seen the scene since it aired, recently
watched it again at a GLAAD benefit. The thing that surprised him the most was
the fact the characters smoked. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit! He lit a cigarette!’
You don’t ever see that [now]. I think seven years ago, when we started Alias
[which Olin executive produced], you could still have people smoking on
television if they were the bad guys. So it was so shocking to see [them
smoking]. That’s how we knew they just had sex.”