It was 2000, a new millennium, and Greg Berlanti was threatening to quit his writing job on Dawson’s Creek so he could get a gay kiss between two men featured on-screen — the first to be aired on a major network in the U.S. “I think you need to include people from all walks of life and that’s really, for television, such an immediate thing,” he says, explaining his actions more than a decade later. Back then, according to Berlanti, the landscape was far more conservative, but he knew that it was important to incorporate his personal experiences into his work.
Television has come a long way. This season, during the premiere of ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, a show created by openly gay writer Peter Nowalk, 14.3 million viewers watched two men have sex on network TV. “It was a big deal,” Berlanti, now 42, says — not to mention, sexy. “That is a part of it, that is a key quality.” And it was a long time coming when you consider everything that came since the scripted high school drama.
Whether intentional or not, Berlanti has been at the forefront of pushing queer characters and storylines on TV in the past 14 years. When it came to 2006’s Brothers & Sisters, ABC was more than okay with gay characters kissing, which eventually led to gay marriage. On Dirty Sexy Money, in 2007, a transgender woman (Candis Cayne) had a part on a scripted primetime series that didn’t involve being a sexual predator (or victim). Now the creator and executive producer of such CW series as Arrow and The Flash, Berlanti’s responsible for a new sort of TV family drama: the superhero kind.
Shows like FOX’s Gotham and Berlanti’s own series — which are based on DC Comics heroes — explore new territory rooted in familiar characters. “I think what really ends up connecting a lot of people as they get older,” he says, “Is they realize that straight people and gay people — we can all feel isolated and we can all feel alone and I think that’s at the core sometimes of the sadness of DC Comics characters — they are burdened by their identity, and so they have this secret identity and this life where they act as a hero and this life that they keep secret.”
Here, the gay allegories are present even if the sex is not. And that’s OK, too, considering the context of these storylines — the focus is self-discovery and finding the path to a better life. That inspiration could be rooted in Berlanti’s inspiration as a teenager in the ‘80s, in which gay cinema and documentaries — such as Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk — had a profound impact. “All the storytellers that came before, that crafted those films, they were helpful to me, not just in coming out, but also in terms of my own work.”
So, given comic books previous limitation with LGBT characters, Berlanti is searching for opportunities to introduce them on his shows. One major gay character will be Pied Piper, DC’s first openly gay villain, who will appear on The Flash in the latter half of the season, according to Berlanti. David Singh, who will appear first, is a recurring closeted crime lab director played by Patrick Sabongui. Despite the incredible tradition that many of these comic books have, Berlanti says he doesn’t feel restricted to maintain the same exact narrative, whether it’s race, sexual orientation, or gender. “It’s nice to figure out and find ways to update them so that they reflect the openness of our society today and be understanding of the equality that I think exists.”
The equality that Berlanti is looking to showcase on TV goes beyond what he’s accomplished with gay characters. The superhero world is not without its problems when it comes to female characters, as well. “I was always hearing a lot while we were working on the shows — from dads as much as moms — ‘Can’t you just do one about a woman?’ " In September, CBS placed a series order for Supergirl, who Berlanti says is very much a woman who exists in Superman’s world and is tired of being number two. “That’s something, in a way, that everyone can identify with.”
“We’re all our own hero, and we can’t wait around for someone else to swoop in and save the day,” Berlanti adds. The sentiment not only applies to own series but to the generation of creators who come up beneath him. While far from slowing down, Berlanti has brought it so far and “they continue to bring it to the next level.”
The Flash premieres on Tuesday, Oct. 7 at 8/7c and Arrow returns with season 3 on Wednesday, Oct. 8 at 8/7c only on The CW.