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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

WILL & GRACE Episodes We'd Like To See

If asked what my all-time favourite television comedy is, I would have to sidestep such greats as "I Love Lucy," "Cheers," "All in the Family," and "The Beverly Hillbillies" and cast my ballot for "Designing Women."

Happily still available in syndication several times a day on the US Lifetime network --- also known in our household as the "Men Are Pigs" channel --- "Designing Women" offers intelligent, snappy dialogue in a format best described as "four white chicks and a black dude sitting around talking." The producers, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband, Harry Thomason, who gained later infamy through their association with the Clinton White House travel office scandal, were at their best in this Reagan-Bush era sitcom which took pot shots at favorite Bloodworth-Thomason targets: male chauvinism, conservative dimwits, overbearing religion, beauty queens and the New South.

My favourite episodes often had one of the principal characters --- four attractive southern women associated with the Atlanta-based Sugarbaker interior decorating firm --- involved in a situation which enabled Linda Bloodworth-Thomason to use the show to further her own political causes. At one point, she even had Charlene (Jean Smart), the show's big-hearted but not necessarily dumb blonde, extol the virtues of her friend back in Arkansas, then-Gov. Bill Clinton.

The best episodes often had a touch of poignancy with their political messages. It's hard to pick favourites, but ones that immediately come to mind include the class reunion of aging beauty queen Suzanne (Delta Burke), who was selected "Most Changed" by her middle-aged classmates because she had gained a lot of weight since high school. Suzanne used the moment for soulful self-examination and realized ythat she was indeed changed --- along with the pounds, the years had given her depth of character, making her a better person than the superficial high school girl she had once been.

Another favourite episode had Charlene struggling with a relligious crisis because her conservative new pastor advocated a limited role for women in the church --- an issue "Designing Women" raised long before the Southern Baptists made national controversy by formally adopting the same position at one of their recent conferences. It took Bernice (Alice Ghostley), an elderly and slightly batty friend of the four principal characters, to go one-on-one with the smug pastor in a game of biblical quotation one-upmanship.

Ultimately, though, my favourite episode is the one in which a young gay man with AIDS (Tony Godlwyn) asks the Sugarbaker agency to plan his funeral for him. Julia (Dixie Carter), the show's stiff backboned liberal (also known as "The Terminator"), responds by throwing a homophobic acquaintance out of her home after the woman suggests AIDS is divine retribution against homosexuality. In the same episode, Mary Jo (Annie Potts), a sometimes self-doubting single mum, speaks in favor of safe-sex education to the local PTA, because knowing the man with AIDS made her realize safe sex isn't just a choice anymore, it's a matter of life and death.

The messages of "Designing Women" live on and are still relevant, thanks to the miracle of syndication. The show's creators took advantage of an opportunity to speak out and made it work. In the long run, the show will have more influence on people's thinking that the Bloodworth-Thomasons ever imagined.

Which brings me to my favourite TV sitcom still on its first run, "Will & Grace." "Will & Grace" made television history this past year by being the first show with two gay lead characters to win top television comedy awards, including Golden Globes and Emmys. The show's format is comparable to "Designing Women," in that it could be described as "two gay dudes, a straight chick and a sloshed rich broad sitting around talking."

From my point of view as the father of a gay son, the show is great. My favourite episode so far is the one where gay hero Will (Eric McCormick) attends an awards banquet with his father (Sydney Pollack), the latter of whom suddenly has an outburst of liberal fatherly pride, right in front of everyone, to make up for all the years of not being able to deal with Will's homosexuality. It was a hilarious moment and also a very real one for any parent trying to adjust to a gay child's sexual orientation.

A case could be made that "Will & Grace" makes a political statement just by winning regular good ratings and maintaining quality, if mostly non-issue-oriented, scripts. Just the same, I'd like to see the show occasionally step more often into Sugarbakerland and take on an important gay-oriented social issue, such as it did when Jack (Sean Hayes), Will and Grace's flaming gay friend, became involved with an "ex-gay" cult leader (Neil Patrick Harris). With gentle humour, the show successfully made its point --- that sexual orientation is difficult, if not impossible, to change. It also had an amusing finale in which Hayes and Harris headed off to the showers together. This was before real-life ex-gay poster boy John Henry Paulk fell from right-wing grace after being spotted in a Washington, D.C. gay bar.

For the most part, "Will & Grace" is like "Friends" and "Three's Company" --- attractive 20-to-30 somethings help each other in and out of romantic scrapes each week. That's all well and good, but here are a few plotlines I'd like the producers to consider.

* "Will and the Married Guy." Will meets the perfect man (David Hasselhoff) who turns out to be happily married --- to a woman. Will struggles with the issue of whether or not to stay in the relationship even after the man offers to leave his wife for him. In the end, Will backs away, goes back to Grace to eat ice cream and rents a copy of "In and Out."

* "Grace and the Compassionate Conservative." Grace (Debra Messinger) is asked to decorate a campaign kickoff for a personable conservative politician (Martin Sheen) who turns out to be so homophobic he won't even meet with a representative of the Log Cabin Republicans (Rick Schroder). Grace quits the job and takes the LCR out for ice cream and a video.

* "Jack's Mom Joins PFLAG." Jack's mum (Veronica Cartwright) joins a support group for parents, friends and families of gays and lesbians and embarrasses him to death by overdoing her commitment and getting arrested for punching out a homophobic city councilman with her purse. Jack's embarrassed mostly, it turns out, because Mum's purse clashed with her shoes.

* "Karen Takes on the Boy Scouts." Karen (Megan Mullally), Grace's rich, substance-abusing friend and co-worker, somehow becomes involved with the scouts as a den mother thanks to her stepson, who's working on an Eagle project. She discovers the scouts are run by rampant homophobes and with Jack's assistance, takes the troop on a field trip to see The Indigo Girls. Later, the boys all turn in their merit badges and join Scouting for All.

* "Rosario's Tio Chucho." Karen's long-suffering Latina maid Rosario (and forgive me, I can't recall this wonderful actress' name), refuses to meet with her dying uncle, Chucho (Ricardo Montalban), because he came out as a gay man in midlife, left his family, and went to live with his male lover (Fabio). Will, Grace, Karen and Jack all join forces to help Rosario and Tio Chucho reconcile before he dies. Jack also flirts with Chucho's lover.

* "The Hate Crime." Outside a gay nightclub where they've gone with Will and Jack, Grace and Karen are mistaken for lesbians and beaten by skinheads. Karen, the more seriously injured, is alternately amused and annoyed at the mistake, even while she's in traction at the hospital. Will convinces Grace to attend a support group for gay victims of violence. Jack and Rosario track down the skinheads and beat the snot out of them. Karen discovers the skinheads are in the same hospital as she is and switches their painkillers with prescription diuretics.

OK, OK, I'm no Linda Bloodworth-Thomason when it comes to comedy writing. But I still would like to see "Will & Grace" seize the day in terms of taking on some more social issues. But what do I know; I also believe that if it ain't broken, it don't need fixin'.

Published 15th January 2001


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