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Hallmark, Lifetime, others embrace LGBTQ holiday romance

Cheesy seasonal fare becomes more inclusive at last

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Christmas House, gay news, Washington Blade
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star in ‘Happiest Season.’ (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

As we move firmly into November, there’s no escaping the fact that holiday season 2020 is upon us – and with the election result and news of a vaccine breakthrough, it feels like we might feel OK about celebrating this year, after all.

Making that easier for us all, of course, is the annual influx of holiday viewing fare that has already begun showing up on our screens, right on cue, to help us get in the mood. For LGBTQ+ audiences, that has traditionally meant having to settle for getting our fix of seasonal spirit vicariously through stories about straight people – but giving us even more reason to celebrate, this time around, is a plethora of inclusive options in which, at long last, we get to see our queer romantic holiday fantasies played out without having to filter them through a heteronormative lens.

Probably the most significant of these new entries – from the standpoint of cultural politics, at least – is “The Christmas House,” which comes amid the heavy slate of holiday-themed romantic movies from the Hallmark Channel, and represents a seismic shift at the formerly conservative network by placing a loving same-sex couple at the center of its warm and fuzzy storyline. Starring out gay actor Jonathan Bennett (best known as high school heartthrob Aaron Samuels in 2004’s “Mean Girls”), it focuses on a gay couple trying to adopt their first child, and co-stars Robert Buckley, Ana Ayora, Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence.

To recognize why “The Christmas House” (which premieres Nov. 22) is as meaningful as it is, it’s necessary to look back at Christmas 2019. A lot has happened since then, but if you prod your memory, you’ll likely recall the debacle that took place when Hallmark caved to pressure from right-wing homophobic activists (particularly the misleadingly named “One Million Moms,” a front for known hate group the American Family Association) and pulled several ads for the wedding planning website Zola over the inclusion of a lesbian couple. The backlash from the LGBTQ+ community and its advocates was swift and profound, and a week later the ads were reinstated, with Hallmark vowing to work with GLAAD on a plan to move forward with more inclusive programming. It was an unequivocal victory in the “culture wars,” made even more sweet by the context of a flagrantly anti-LGBTQ political administration and the false perception of legitimacy bestowed upon homophobic social attitudes that it enabled.

For proof that the climate had changed – even before last week’s election – one only has to look at the words of Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming for Hallmark, whose statement when “The Christmas House” was announced late last month as part of the network’s seasonal lineup opened by saying, “Our holiday table is bigger and more welcoming than ever.” It might have the ring of carefully manufactured corporate-speak, but that sentence still represents the culmination of a decades-long struggle – and while not every member of the LGBTQ+ crowd may be excited about being represented in the kind of feel-good fare that straight couples have been enjoying together since forever, we can all still look at the fact that it’s finally happening as an important milestone worthy of celebration – though it’s worth noting that One Million Moms has another homophobic petition circulating in protest of this one, too.

Hallmark isn’t the only cable titan unveiling its first same-sex Christmas romance this year; the Lifetime Channel, similarly known for being a family-friendly seasonal juggernaut, is dropping “The Christmas Set-Up,” which stars two actors (Ben Lewis and Blake Lee) who are not only openly gay, but are an actual couple in real life. While the network last year aired “Twinkle All the Way,” which featured a same-sex kiss between two supporting characters, this time they are putting the gay love story front and center.

This one follows Hugo, a New York lawyer (Lewis), whose matchmaking mom (played by Fran Drescher) decides to set him up with Patrick (Lee), his old high school friend – and secret crush. According to the synopsis, things go smoothly between the two men at first, but they take a dramatic turn when (in true made-for-TV romance fashion) Hugo gets a promotion that comes with a relocation to London, forcing him to choose between his career and the man of his dreams. It also stars Ellen Wong (“G.L.O.W”) as Hugo’s best friend.

“The Christmas Set-Up” represents Lifetime’s efforts to bolster its own reputation for diversity and inclusion, in a Christmas lineup that also features the network’s first movie centered on an Asian-American family, “A Sugar & Spice Holiday.” In a statement made in September, when Lifetime’s holiday slate was announced, head of programming Amy Winter said, “The world we create on camera should reflect the world we live in.”

She went on to add, “Our hope with these inclusive films and others is that people will see themselves while enjoying universally relatable holiday romances.”

“The Christmas Set-Up” won’t drop until Dec. 12, but for fans of gay romance, it should be well worth the wait.

It’s laudable that these once-resistant cable networks have opened up their programming to include more diverse representation, of course; but while we have been waiting for them to get on board, we should not forget that streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu have already been leading the charge for quite some time. Both of them continue that tradition this season with LGBTQ-centric holiday offerings of their own.

While Netflix doesn’t have a specifically LGBTQ-centered title coming for the holiday season, it is bringing us “Dash & Lily,” based on the popular YA romance book series by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, which includes queer characters – not to mention the non-holiday-themed Ryan Murphy adaptation of the Broadway musical, “The Prom.” 

Hulu, however, is putting LGBTQ love in the spotlight with “Happiest Season,” a romantic comedy from director Clea Duvall, who also co-wrote with Mary Holland.

Featuring two queer icons (Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis) in the leads, and yet another (Dan Levy) in prominent support, Duvall’s film revolves around girlfriends Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Davis), and Abby’s plan to propose at the annual Christmas dinner held at Harper’s family (Davis) home. When Abby arrives for the big night, she discovers that not only is Harper’s family ignorant of their relationship, they don’t even know that Harper is gay, prompting her to question how well she knows the person she’s planning on spending the rest of her life with.

That synopsis might give the impression that “Happiest Season” is more a soul-searching downer than you might want from holiday-themed romance, but official descriptions assure us that this latest lesbian-themed Hulu Original is “a holiday romantic comedy that hilariously captures the range of emotions tied to wanting your family’s acceptance, being true to yourself, and trying not to ruin Christmas.” And if you are enthusiastic to see the movie – which premieres Nov. 25 – you are in good company. Its star, Stewart, said in a statement: “I think I’ve wished to see a gay Christmas rom-com my whole life.”

Many would say – in this case, at least – that K-Stew speaks for us all.

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Television

Check out final season of ‘Grace and Frankie’ — it ends well 

Groundbreaking show highlights queer, straight elders

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Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are wrapping their groundbreaking series. (Photo by Melissa Moseley; courtesy Netflix)

They make up a fake Jewish holiday (M’Challah) to avoid seeing their friends, lie to their kids about killing their bunny, obsess over playing John Adams in a (very gay) community theater production of the musical “1776” and create vibrators that glow in the dark. Their children sell their house out from under them and make them wear panic alerts.

These people might well creep you out in real life.

But, thankfully, they’re the funny and engaging characters on “Grace and Frankie,” the series, whose seventh and final season has recently dropped on Netflix.

The  show, starring Lily Tomlin, 82, (Frankie) and Jane Fonda, 84, (Grace) as two hetero elders whose husbands (Martin Sheen, 81 as Robert and Sam Waterston, 81, as Sol) leave them to marry each other, is, deservedly, Netflix’s longest-running series.

In 2019, there were 54.1 million people in the United States over 65, according to a Administration for Community Living of the U.S. Department of Human Services report. Elders, the study says, are expected to make up 2l.6 percent of this country’s population by 2040.

There are nearly three million (2.7 million) LGBTQ people over aged 50 in the U.S. and 1.1 million queer elders 65 and older in this country, according to a 2017 Movement Advancement Project and SAGE report.

Yet aside from “Transparent,” few TV series (broadcast, cable or streaming) have featured, let alone, been centered around, older queers.

“Grace and Frankie” is the rare series that’s focused on the lives of elders (hetero and queer). Unlike some shows that showcase older people, it’s been mostly entertaining, even thought provoking, rather than dull or didactic throughout its run.

Set in San Diego, “Grace and Frankie” throughout its seasons has told the story of how Frankie and Grace have created a life of their own as Robert and Sol have entered a new chapter of their lives as a same-sex couple. 

Frankie, Grace, Robert and Sol, who are in their 70s, are affluent. Robert and Sol are successful divorce lawyers. Grace has run a flourishing cosmetics company. Frankie is a new-agey artist who teaches art to ex-convicts.

When Robert and Sol say that they’re leaving them to wed each other because same-sex marriage has become legal in California, Frankie says she’s done a fundraiser for that.

The beach house where Grace and Frankie live is breathtakingly gorgeous. Yet these characters encounter the indignities and dilemmas of aging from learning about social media to coming out in late life to memory loss to end-of-life decisions.

Grace and Frankie run up against the condescension that older women often face. Yet though these are serious concerns, “Grace and Frankie” hasn’t been a downer. 

In one episode, as I’ve written before in the Blade, Grace and Frankie, though they’re practically jumping in front of his face, can’t get a store’s sales clerk to notice them. Because he’s paying so much attention to a young woman. Frankie gives up and steals a pack of cigarettes. If “you can’t see me,” Frankie says, “you can’t stop me.”

In season two, their friend Babe (Estelle Parsons), who is terminally ill, tells Frankie and Grace that she wants them to help her end her life. Though it’s difficult emotionally for them, the women give their friend Babe a good-bye party that’s joyous without being maudlin.

Robert and Sol deal with Robert being in the early stages of dementia. This narrative is touching, but not sappy. Though you should have a tissue in hand for Robert and Sol’s elevator moment in the show’s finale.

Like many old people, the characters have their ups and downs in relating to their adult children. These off-spring from Brianna (June Diane Raphael), a 21st century Cruella de Vil, to Bud (Baron Vaughn), the often wrong-headed “good son,” would try any elder’s soul. 

The main pleasure of “Grace and Frankie” is watching Tomlin and Fonda. The two forces of nature, friends since their “9 to 5″ days, make you laugh and cry with the BFFs Grace and Frankie.

TV series, like everything, have to end. Check out “Grace and Frankie.” It ends well.

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Television

Netflix scores queer triumph with ‘Heartstopper’

Series adapted from popular YA webcomic about teen boys who fall in love

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Kit Conner and Joe Locke star in ‘Heartstopper,’ streaming April 22. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If we were only able to choose one word to describe “Heartstopper,” the new Netflix series adapted from Alice Oseman’s wildly popular 2017 YA webcomic about two teenage boys who fall in love, that word would have to be “adorable” — and it would be more than enough justification for an enthusiastic recommendation to start streaming it right now.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose, and just in case there are some curmudgeons among our readers who avoid “adorable” content as a matter of principle, we can add quite a few more words just to make it clear that this is a show to win the heart of even the most cynical viewer and have them ready to binge it straight to the end after watching only the first five minutes.

For readers of Oseman’s original comic, no explanation is needed to convey the infectious blend of emotions that makes its simple love story so irresistible; with more than 52 million views to date and the bestselling print publication of four volumes so far, its quick and widespread popularity is proof enough of the story’s universal – and multi-intersectional – appeal. “Heartstoppers” is the story of Charlie and Nick, a pair of students at an English boys’ school with widely differing places in the school’s pecking order; Charlie, gentle and shy, has been bullied after being inadvertently outed as gay the previous year, and spends most of his time with a handful of other social misfits, while Nick, athletic and popular, is a rugby player who hangs out with his equally athletic and popular teammates. Yet when they end up sitting together in a class they share, the two become friends – much to the surprise of Charlie, who finds himself crushing on Nick despite assuming, along with everyone else, that he is straight. It’s not hard to see where things are going to go from there, even without spoilers, but that predictability does nothing to dampen the delight of following these two young and tender hearts as they negotiate the pangs and pressures of first love while navigating their school’s deeply ingrained social hierarchy.

With Oseman herself writing the adaptation, the series had an advantage right out of the gate when it came to translating that into a live-action format, and her fans have been eagerly awaiting it ever since Netflix announced it was happening in January of 2021. The resulting series – an all-too-brief season of eight half-hour episodes directed by BAFTA-winning “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” veteran Euros Lyn – will almost certainly lead millions of others to join their ranks.

The most important factor in bringing the story’s appeal to the screen is undoubtedly the casting of its two leading characters, and with newcomer Joe Locke as Charlie joining Kit Connor (“Rocketman,” “His Dark Materials”) as Nick, it’s hard to imagine how the show’s creators could have done better. Locke, with his soulful eyes and curly mop of hair, perfectly captures the look of the character as drawn, as does the cherubic, handsome Connor – but they bring much more than an apt appearance to their roles. 

In a story that requires them to delicately tread through a potentially fraught emotional landscape, facing scenarios with consequences ranging from the socially awkward to the deeply traumatic, they not only fulfill that duty effortlessly, but do so while meeting every moment with enough intelligence, sensitivity, and authenticity to make the already-relatable nuances of their young relationship resonate even more tangibly. Most essential of all, the tender chemistry they share is strong enough – and believable enough – to ensure that the almost unbearable sweetness of their blossoming romance never once feels sappy or insincere. It’s a fragile and difficult balance to maintain, but these two young actors pull it off with such unforced buoyancy that we are too busy floating on their cloud with them to even notice.

As right-on-target as the show’s portrayal of Nick and Charlie’s journey together may be, they are not the only LGBTQ+ characters in the mix. There’s Elle (Yasmin Finney), a member of Charlie’s circle until being transferred to the neighboring girls’ school after coming out as transgender, who is nervous about being accepted in her new environment. Also at the girls’ school is Tara (Corinna Brown), who once shared a kiss with Nick but is now on the verge of coming out and going public about her relationship with girlfriend Darcy (Kizzy Edgell). Finally, there’s Tao (William Gao), a protective friend and ally to them all (though his protective nature leads him to mistrust Nick’s intentions), who is beginning to recognize the stirrings of more than friendship with Elle.

Simply reading that roster might lead one to presume the show is trying to up the ante on inclusion by including as many colors in the rainbow as possible – and it’s worth mentioning that the cast of characters is made up of a diverse blend of ethnicities, too. Neither of these elements feel forced; those of us who know about life from more than just television surely recognize that seeing so many LGBTQ+ people and people of color mixed into one blended community together is not a stretch – it’s an accurate reflection of the real world. Even if that were not the case, the show asserts its sincerity by treating each of these characters and their stories with the same amount of kindness it affords Nick and Charlie; it even leaves room for us to pity characters like Ben (Sebastian Croft), a closeted boy who carries on a secret relationship with Charlie while refusing to acknowledge him in the halls, or Harry (Cormac Hyde-Corrin) a teammate of Nick’s who delights in tormenting anyone who doesn’t fit in, who are on hand to remind us that – increased acceptance notwithstanding – homophobia still exerts a toxic enough effect to make coming out a difficult path to undertake alone.

In answer to that, the show takes ample opportunity to explore the theme of chosen family; the way these friends help each other along the way, even as they themselves are trying not to stumble, serves as both an inspiration and a reminder to the countless viewers, whether LGBTQ or not, who know first-hand the bonds that grow from such experience. As for “real” families, they’re not left out of the picture, either: both Nick and Charlie have supportive (if not always helpful) parents in their lives, and Charlie’s older sister Tori (Jenny Walser) emerges every so often from her room like a denizen of the underworld rising to taunt him – lovingly, of course – with a truth or two.

By now, it feels like we’re gushing. After all, haven’t the last few years have seen any number of LGBTQ teen love stories coming to our screens? And hasn’t each of them been hailed as a milestone of representation? Haven’t queer elders remarked, each time, what a difference it would have made if they had seen such a film when they were growing up?

The thing is, though, that it’s been true each time — and sometimes, as it does with “Heartstopper” — it feels a little more true than usual.

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Television

Grindr’s first series is as shallow as you’d expect

Instantly forgettable, just like a typical hook-up

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Jimmy Fowlie and Calvin Seabrooks connect in ‘Bridesman.’ (Photo courtesy Grindr)

When Grindr announced it was dropping its first-ever original series on April Fools’ Day, many people assumed it was a joke. 

That’s perfectly forgivable; even without the seasonal timing, most people would never expect the notorious “dating” app to jump into the streaming entertainment market. It just seems, well, absurd. But whether or not Grindr chose the release date as a bit of self-deprecating fun, “Bridesman” – a limited comedy series consisting of six 7-10 minute webisodes and focusing on the misadventures of a gay scenester as his female BFF prepares for her wedding – is not a joke. It really exists.

Unfortunately.

The series, created by John Onieal and co-written by Onieal and Frank Spiro, debuted on Grindr for its first weekend, but is now available to stream on the app’s YouTube channel. It stars Jimmy Fowlie as Terry, described in the official synopsis as an “awful gay,” who is asked by his best friend Judith (Sydnee Washington) to fulfill bridesmaid duties at her upcoming nuptials. Terry, aside from his disdain for marriage as a heteronormative construct, feels betrayed that the person who once claimed to be his “forever partner” has chosen to commit herself to another man, and to make matters worse, he feels an “electric” sexual connection with Wyatt (David Mudge), her literally myopic groom-to-be. Rather than see his BFF lost to the horrors of a traditional marriage, he resolves to save her from that fate by doing his best to tank the wedding – especially since it also means sticking it to the control-obsessed Muriel (Shannon DeVido), chosen over him to be Judith’s Maid-of-Honor and therefore an object of his particular disdain.

What follows is (again, according to the official synopsis) “an irreverent, fast-paced satire of modern wedding culture and the ‘old fashioned trend’ of monogamy,” in which Terry goes on a slash-and-burn campaign to ruin his best friend’s big day, doing his best to sabotage everything from the sexy bridal boudoir photo shoot to the bachelorette party, and steamrolling his way through a tangled web that involves detectives, a secret agent, a relationship counselor moonlighting as a stripper, and a demon from hell. Along the way, though, he still finds time to hook up with a sexy Uber driver (Calvin Seabrooks) whenever he feels like going for a ride.

It seems like a lot to pack into a story that, in total, runs just shy of an hour, but the show’s self-description of “fast-paced” is accurate, and director Julian Buchan never allows things to drag. Indeed, the story moves so fast it doesn’t even give all its jokes time to land – an approach that works well with a script that throws them out like a pitching machine on a batting range – and trusts its audience to keep up. 

That’s probably not a miscalculation, either; the target demographic here has become well-accustomed to absorbing a lot of information in a short space of time, thanks to the rise of YouTube, TikTok, and all the other digital sources of entertainment for those with a short attention span. Furthermore, since the characters on the screen belong definitively to that same generation, they have no problem sticking to a rapid pace, and they plow ahead with confidence as if they’re in a race with the cameras to get to the end of the show first.

In fact, it’s the cast – an admirably diverse and inclusive one, thankfully – that makes it all come together, and which provides us with most of the show’s entertainment value. They embrace their exaggerated characters – most of whom are vapid, narcissistic, aggressively pretentious, or some toxic combination of the three – with glee and abandon, committing completely to the absurdities the story necessitates them to enact. It’s infectious, and it almost allows “Bridesman” to live up to its aspirations of satire.

As to that, the show sets its sights not just on “modern wedding culture,” as it declares in its synopsis, but on the broader target of modern culture in general, with its emphasis on the shallow and ephemeral and its obsession with self. It aims for a similar tone, perhaps, as “The Other Two” (the runaway comedic hit that began life on Comedy Central before being picked up by HBO for its second season), a show that deftly skewers the self-serving, attention-seeking mentality that drives our pop culture as it barrels through its never-ending cycle of “new, now, next” distractions. Its two lead characters – the older sister and gay brother of a teen YouTube star who are trying to levy their proximity to him into fame and fortune for themselves – are flat out horrible people, or at least behave like them, as are most of the characters that surround them, and watching them fail repeatedly in their efforts to manipulate their way into the fickle spotlight of “the moment” is just part of the fun provided by the series’ merciless send-up of the trends, tropes, and twaddle that surround so much of what we see on our plethora of screens today.

The characters in “Bridesman,” for the most part, are horrible people, too, though in some cases they might just be regular people caught up in a horrible mindset. Most horrible of all, of course, is Terry, who essentially embodies everything that gay youth culture loves to hate about itself; vain, judgmental, driven by libido, and completely unconcerned with anyone’s feelings but his own, he lives to create drama yet seems to love nothing better than to stand aside from it and roll his eyes in withering disapproval. Portrayed with dead-on accuracy by Fowlie (who is, coincidentally, probably best known to viewers for a recurring role as a super-gay influencer on “The Other Two”), he embodies the kind of jaded queer socialite whose posturing and self-promotion only prove just how “basic” he really is.

Yet the reason we are really amused by “The Other Two” and other shows that successfully lampoon the foibles and pretensions of our own society is not just because they put them on display. We laugh because we recognize something of ourselves in the people we see on the screen; because the horribleness is contrasted with the human, or at least tempered by good intentions; because there’s a flicker of something genuine underneath all the pretense reminding us that, no matter how far we allow ourselves to be carried away by our own ego, there is always a thread we can follow back to reality. Without that factor, the comedy can easily become hollow, even cruel, and amounts to ridiculing something just for the sake of ridiculing it.

 “Bridesman” has no such tempering influence. Though its satire is savage and even smart, there’s little self-awareness to suggest that it has any purpose except to become the “next big thing” and enjoy its five minutes in pop culture’s center ring. Like the people who inhabit it, it might be fun to hang around with for a while, but in the end its lack of substance makes it instantly forgettable.

You know, just like a typical Grindr hook-up.

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