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Will & Grace & Ellen & Why 2 Out of These 3 Are a Hit

May 17, 1999|MICHAEL ALVEAR | Michael Alvear is an Atlanta writer who suffers from remote control issues

Who would have thought that just a year after Ellen DeGeneres' fiasco, the toast of Tinseltown would be a gay, a princess, a queen and a spoiled brat?

Will & Grace and their friends, like George and Louise Jefferson before them, have moved on up--to a new deluxe

apartment in the sky. NBC relocated them to its Thursday night penthouse on Must-See TV and renewed them for next season. NBC didn't just give gays a place at the table, they put them at the head.

You can't help but make comparisons between "Will & Grace" and "Ellen." Why did one succeed and the other one tank? Why is America so accepting of Will when it was so unaccepting of Ellen?

Let's call a spade a spade. Ellen's show was, in the immortal words of last year's controversy, "too gay."

Whether Chastity Bono, Sonny and Cher's lesbian daughter, said those two words or not while representing the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, gay rights groups worked themselves into a lather denying the charge. What a crock. Gay men and women can't serve in the military, get married or keep their jobs without keeping their identities secret, and somehow gay rights groups thought Straight America didn't have a problem with their children watching 30 minutes of ABC's Lesbo-a-Go-Go.

Ellen DeGeneres is the only woman in my book who qualifies as both hero and idiot. She could've painted on ABC's canvas for years if she had just laid off the chartreuse a little. She created and then squandered the most golden opportunity in television history. As much as I like her (and the truth is, I adore her), I can't help but think she succumbed to the gay rights orthodoxy that's becoming

more revolting than the fundamentalists they fight against. She developed all the signs of today's gay activists: an overbearing, heavy-handed need to "educate," an almost religious belief that identity is more important than humanity, and a willingness to give up success because it didn't come in the preferred ideological package.

After the first few terrific episodes, "Ellen" became the "Look, I'm a Lesbian!" show. Networks need hits. You don't get hits in a mass medium by appealing to 10% of the population. Ask Bill Cosby. His show couldn't be too black. Ask Jerry Seinfeld. His show couldn't be too Jewish. They had the good sense of knowing that they had to offer members outside of their group a good reason to watch. They did. She didn't. Will does.

"Will & Grace" is a hit because being gay is entirely beside the point. "Will & Grace" treats homosexuality as an intricately woven thread in universally shared situations. "Ellen," on the other hand, insisted on making gay the fabric of our lives.

I, for one, don't think that being gay makes you special enough to wrap a TV show around. The daily lives of gay men and women aren't very different from straight people. Where Will is a charming man who happens to be gay, Ellen was a lesbian who happened to be charming. Will succeeds because he shows his homosexuality as an extension of his humanity. Ellen failed because she did it the other way around.

History will be kind to Ellen, though. She did, after all, make a breakthrough. She opened the door for all future Wills and Wilmas. But what a kick in the backside it must be for her, to know she squandered her chance because she listened to the activist rather than the artist inside her.

At the end of the day, Ellen will get a space with her name in the parking lot of history. Because of her pioneering work, "Will & Grace" was anointed to follow the mega-hit "Friends." Now let's see if Chandler dumps Monica for Will.

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