Before ‘Will & Grace’ there was ‘Brothers’

Queer representation on television has become so normalized and mainstreamed, it’s difficult to remember just how dicey television was when it comes to LGBT characters. Will & Grace (1998-2006) was seen as a ground-breaking show that featured openly gay lead characters. A huge cultural and popular hit with audiences, the show was heralded for breaking down barriers and stereotypes – even Vice President Joe Biden credited Will & Grace as a major reason for a more gay-friendly America, saying “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far.”

But Will & Grace wasn’t the first show to feature gay characters – in fact before 1998, there were a number of shows that had queer characters that were either recurring or starring. Before becoming a talk-show titan, Ellen DeGeneres famously came out on her sitcom Ellen (1994-1998); and Billy Crystal famously played gay on Soap (1977-1981); Love, Sidney (1981-1983), Sara (1985), Melrose Place (1992-1999), among a scant few others, had gay characters – and most were written with some sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

Still, a nuanced portrayal of gay characters was rare to see on television, and though Will & Grace is often credited with changing the conversation, so to speak, it’s a shame that Brothers, a sitcom that ran from 1984 to 1989, is rarely brought up and barely remembered now. Set in Philadelphia, Brothers tells the story of Cliff Waters (Paul Regina), a man who comes out of the closet on his wedding day, jilting his bride-to-be, and shocking his overprotective and masculine brothers, Joe (Robert Walden) and Lou (Brandon Maggart).

An interesting note before I go into the show’s pilot in details, I discovered Brothers late one night on a local channel that aired reruns of sitcoms. Among the old repeats of The Carol Burnett Show, Mama’s Family, Happy Days, or Laverne & Shirley, Brothers ran – though hidden away in a time slot so late, I believe that once the show ended, the National Anthem played and the screen went to snow. A friend of mine suggested the show – he said he found a show “about a bunch of fags” and at the time, deeply closeted, I snickered and laughed, too. But then I watched the show and remembered one character in particular: Donald Maltby (Philip Charles MacKenzie).

Donald was obviously the breakout character – the wacky neighbor. Before Jack MacFarland, Donald was the flamboyantly gay best friend with the ready quips and the razor-sharp wit. What struck me about Donald – and I couldn’t have been older than 10 at the time – was just how unapologetic he was. He didn’t care what people thought about him, and in fact, was defiant in his effeminacy. Obviously, there were issues with the characterization of Donald, and looking back now, sometimes I cringe that the cartoonish way he’s drawn out – and it’s important to note that most of the flamboyantly gay characters on TV were unassuming and asexual – sure, Donald was gay, but he, like most gay characters, was written for a straight audience, so he was nonthreatening and palpable. Essentially, he was a Mae West wannabe – funny and ready with a sharp pun and double entendre.

Donald is introduced in the show’s pilot, which sets up the premise of the show. Once Cliff comes out of the closet, his brothers have a predictably-difficult time of accepting his announcement. The script – written by by David Lloyd, the man responsible for Cheers and Fraiser – is a surprisingly thoughtful one that looks at friendship, brotherhood, love, and tolerance. Once out, Cliff is hounded by both his brothers, who believe he is suffering from some kind of mental disorder. A common reaction, though Lloyd is careful to note that it’s the brothers who have the issue, not Cliff. Joe and Lou plan to drag Cliff away and get him analyzed, an interesting setup, especially in light of the recent progressions in the debate over conversion therapy (in the second episode, Lou brings a brochure for group conversion therapy).

Because Cliff is still freshly out, Lloyd needs a counterpoint for gay representation – and that’s where Donald comes in. The two share a friendship, much like Jack and Will do on Will & Grace: Cliff is the more traditionally-attractive men who is also more traditionally-heterosexual, while Donald is unabashedly femme and fabulous. He is also presented as a mentor of sorts, because he has been out longer. It’s important to note that Donald was the first to know that Cliff is gay.

But Lloyd doesn’t shortchange Joe, either. Joe obviously loves his brother and though initially disappointed, he eventually comes around. Walden does wonders with the role and is very appealing as the gradually understanding older brother. Because it’s the 1980s, fag-bashing jokes are still in vogue, and Lloyd does allow for some to pass through Joe’s lips – and the jokes are ugly and unpleasant (though it has to be said, that in subsequent episodes Joe and Donald become fast friends). Cliff and Joe finally have a face-to-face, and each brother admits his love for the other. Joe has feelings of guilt – like many brothers or parents do when a loved one comes out – and Cliff reassures him that he’s gay because he is – some thirty years before Lady Gaga insisted that gays were “Born This Way,” David Lloyd sneaked in that revelation on a little-watched show on premium cable.

The pilot isn’t perfect: Lloyd is a sitcom writer first, and so many of the tropes of 1980s sitcoms intrude, dating the show incredibly. The worst offender being Lloyd’s writing of Lou. Character actor Brandon Maggart does what he can with the role, but Lloyd shows contempt for the working class lug, drawing him as somewhat ignorant, doofy, and violent. As the show progressed, Lou’s coarseness was softened and he became more sympathetic.

Brothers isn’t available on DVD – a shame because it deserves a new audience. It’s a great show that shouldn’t be underestimated, despite it being overshadowed by Will & Grace.

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Filed under Sitcom, Television, TV, Writing

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