It was the year of the man, and the woman, on TV in 2003. It just happens that it was man with man, and woman with woman.
While NBC's "Will & Grace," HBO's "Six Feet Under" and Showtime's "Queer as Folk" continue to attract audiences, a new set of shows about or featuring gay and lesbian characters exploded onto the broadcast and cable networks, giving gays their most prominent presence yet in the TV mainstream.
This year's biggest splash on the gay front was made by "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Bravo's comedic makeover series that gained almost instant water cooler status. The show not only heightened Bravo's profile in the cable world, but also drew viewers when it aired as a series of specials on parent NBC.
"Boy Meets Boy," which also premiered on Bravo, became the first unscripted gay dating show. ABC unveiled its new comedic twist on gay families and parenting, "It's All Relative." "Angels in America," HBO's epic adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play set against the 1985 spread of AIDS in major urban centers, had an A-list cast and is sure to be a front-runner at next year's Emmys. Ellen DeGeneres, whose viability as a TV star came into question when her first sitcom failed soon after she announced she was a lesbian, became a successful daytime talk show host.
"I'm actually surprised all of this didn't happen sooner," said Robert Greenblatt, Showtime's president of entertainment, of the high-profile gay presence. " 'Will & Grace' really opened the door, even though some folks at the network thought it was risky and shocking at the time. There is a whole generation that has grown up being comfortable with alternative lifestyles. People see Ellen DeGeneres on her new show not as a gay person, but just as a real person. It's just not as shocking as it might have seemed before. The stereotypes are gone."
Added Jeff Gaspin, president of Bravo, about the success of "Queer Eye" and "Boy Meets Boy": "TV audiences are constantly looking for areas that they haven't seen explored before. We had had some success with our shows on gay weddings, and we saw an opportunity to put on programming that might seem controversial but were actually harmless and fun."
Despite its provocative title, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" grew to be popular with families, teens and yuppies. "Sure, the title was controversial, but these guys all had a lot of heart and humor," said Gaspin. "They were really nice guys, and viewers responded to that."
Added Greenblatt on "Queer Eye:" "Viewers saw it was a safe show. It wasn't outrageous. It was fun for viewers to spend time with these guys who were just fun people."
The trend is likely to continue next year. Showtime in a few weeks will premiere "The 'L' Word," about the lives and loves of a group of female friends, many of whom are lesbian. And the network is also launching a new season of "Queer as Folk."
Greenblatt said he expects growing acceptance from mainstream audiences for both series: "In the beginning of its run, 'Queer as Folk' was seen as this extreme show. But now it's got a broader appeal. I think now people see it just as a show about people living normal lives."