Remember when Ellen DeGeneres’ character, Ellen Morgan, came out as gay on her sitcom? It was a Big Deal.
That was the April 30, 1997, episode of Ellen. “The Puppy Episode” was seen by 40 million viewers and won two Emmys and a Peabody Award.
Ellen ran on ABC from 1994 to 1998. I remember it well because I got to meet DeGeneres briefly when the newspaper sent me out to preview the new fall shows on my first Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour.
Before DeGeneres came over to meet ’n’ greet, an ABC publicist dropped by our table and told us that we could ask DeGeneres anything - anything at all - except about (soto voce) “you know.”
I didn’t know. I was brand new to the TV beat, so I asked a fellow critic. She informed me that DeGeneres was gay, but didn’t discuss it publicly.Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t write about it.
Turns out that Ellen was an enormous success. DeGeneres officially came out April 14, 1997, on the cover of Time with the declaration, “Yep, I’m gay.”
Miraculously, the sun rose again the next morning.
Ellen Morgan became th first openly gay prime-time lead character on television. As expected, there was a backlash after “The Puppy Episode.” The series lasted only one more season, with some critics saying the series became “too gay.”
Bottom line: Ellen had opened the door.
All of that seems somewhat quaint now since plenty of entertainment types have exited the closet in the intervening years. The list includes Anderson Cooper (Anderson Live), Matt Bomer (White Collar), Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory), Sam Champion (Good Morning America), Zachary Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek), Sean Hayes (Will and Grace), Sara Gilbert (Roseanne, The Talk), Adam Lambert (American Idol), Chris Colfer (Glee), Wanda Sykes (The New Adventures of Old Christine) and Rosie O’Donnell (The Rosie O’Donnell Show).
Others include Clay Aiken (American Idol), Suze Orman (The Suze Orman Show), David Hyde Pierce (Frasier), T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), George Takei (Star Trek), Portia de Rossi (Arrested Development) and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City).
Also Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story: Asylum), Cherry Jones (24), Alan Cumming (The Good Wife), Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings),Rachel Maddow (The Rachel Maddow Show), Jane Lynch (Glee), and (after decades of silence) Jodie Foster.
These days it’s hardly newsworthy when a series features a gay character. Just this past season NBC’s The New Normal featured a gay couple who hired a surrogate mother. The series came from Hollywood mover and shaker Ryan Murphy (Popular, Nip/ Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story) and was based on his experiences.
The New Normal was canceled for lack of ratings, but the title reminds us of one of TV’s most successful current comedies.
In four seasons, ABC’s Modern Family has been nominated for 45 Primetime Emmys (winning 16) and won the Best Comedy Emmy three years running.
It revolves around three related families. The first is the patriarch remarried to a much younger wife. The second is a traditional family with the patriarch’s daughter, her husband, and their three kids. The third is the patriarch’s son, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and his partner, played by Eric Stonestreet.
The gay couple, Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett, have adopted a Vietnamese girl, Lily. They are not married and the American Civil Liberties Union believes it’s time for ABC to fix that.
The ACLU believes a ceremony would have a positive effect on their cause while the Supreme Court is mulling over cases challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.
Spokesman Alica Gay writes on the ACLU website, “What does Modern Family have to do with [a forthcoming] landmark Supreme Court case about the freedom to marry? The role of television to advance social change should not be underestimated. TV has helped introduce many Americans to the [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community and inspired many LGBT Americans to come out of the closet.
“Having two main characters in a wildly popular show get married would put the issue of marriage equality in living rooms across the country and generate conversations about the importance of allowing same-sex couples to marry.”
But would the guys getting married risk making Modern Family “too gay,” as some said happened on Ellen? Would it ruin the series for you, or does it seem a logical next step for the show?
Discuss among yourselves. The TV Column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. E-mail:
Weekend, Pages 32 on 06/13/2013
Print Headline: TV’s made strides since Ellen’s ‘Puppy Episode’