The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV

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The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV. Stephen Tropiano. New York: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2002. 332 pp. $16.95 pbk. Given the current media buzz surrounding Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it may be hard to recall the groundbreaking nature of the "coming out" episode of the Ellen sitcom only seven years ago. Yet the decision by the show's star, comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, to out herself and her ABC character in April 1997 was perhaps one of modern prime-time television's most significant events. That episode, while enormously important, was just one moment in a long evolutionary process of American television programs dealing with the subject of homosexuality.

In The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV, Stephen Tropiano offers one of the first in-depth studies of how gays and lesbians have been portrayed on entertainment television. Tropiano, director of the Ithaca College Communications Program in Los Angeles, provides an important addition to the growing literature on the media's representation of homosexuality. Reminiscent of The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo's seminal work on gays in American film, The Prime Time Closet's real value is its critical analysis of gay-themed television story lines and characters.

Like Russo, Tropiano deconstructs many of the programs' messages and ties them to contemporary events in American society. he divides prime-time television shows into four categories including medical and law and order dramas, dramatic series, and television comedy. (While Tropiano includes prime-time television news programming in his lists, he does not critique that genre in any detail, leaving a gap in the literature for another researcher to fill.) The book's scope is vast, ranging from campy but not overtly gay programs from the 1950s and 1960s like I Love Lucy and the judy Garland Show, to today's in-your-face gay cable hits Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under.

One of the most significant contributions of Tropiano's book is his historic overview of how television dealt with major social issues. he writes, "In the 1970s, the issue du jour was gay teachers. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was AIDS." Tropiano outlines how television, like the rest of the nation, struggled to find an appropriate response to the devastating disease. While the results were not always laudable, television did have a significant influence on how the nation viewed AIDS and those it affected.

The author also notes the occasional fallout from network decisions on gay programming. Some of the most interesting material includes Tropiano's account of the controversy caused by a 1973 episode of ABC's Marcus Welby, ? …