Photo: Jack McGee, Tyler Ritter, and Laurie Metcalf | By Sonja Fleming (CBS)
This fall, tune in to CBS to catch what may be the year's gayest new show -- and its biggest missed opportunity.
On paper, The McCarthys has everything you could want in a sitcom: multiple Emmy winner Laurie Metcalf, whose star has been shining brightly in the fantastic HBO series Getting On; doofy eye candy in the form of ex-New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre; and a story that, at least in theory, will resonate with viewers far beyond its Boston setting. The pilot, which airs October 30, portrays a young gay man's struggle to relate to his traditional Irish Catholic family. It sounds thorny and compelling. So why does it all feel so retrograde?
Tyler Ritter, the brother of Parenthood standout Jason (and son of the late Three's Company actor John), plays Ronny, a black sheep of sorts. What that means here is not that he's ostracized for being gay but that his desire to leave Boston (for provincial Providence) is a major problem for a family that just wants him around for big Sunday dinners. They're super accepting of gay folks! It's the show, which relies on stereotypes, that isn't.
The problem is that Ronny is the kind of walking cliche that savvy viewers would think disappeared sometime between Will & Grace and Happy Endings. His one dimension is that he's gay, but being "gay" on The McCarthys doesn't seem to mean being too interested in same-sex partners. Though he resides in a major (and, let's face it, pretty damn gay) city, Ronny not only lacks queer friends but seems to have no current life outside his tight-knit family.
Call it the Will Truman Dilemma: Despite being a physically attractive and accomplished professional, Ronny lives a strange, cloistered existence. At least Will had friends. Ronny, on the other hand, is totally obsessed with his family, and not because he even likes them -- he just has no better options. Metcalf really tries to sell the idea that she and her on-screen son need their weekly sessions of The Good Wife to bond in that smother-mother way. But even her likability and craft can't save this dynamic from playing into dusty old ideas about moms of gay sons: mainly, that they're creepily overinvested rather than cute. Even the most family-dedicated folks leave the house once in a while, but Ronny is so sheltered that his family must throw him a party to introduce him to gay people, all of whom feel like bad jokes from 1992. There's a lesbian basketball player and a sexless gay church-choir singer, plus cocktails named after witless gay puns (you can find "Man-hattans" on the menu).
If "gay" on this series means stunted and lonely, it also means being a dweeb who doesn't know about sports. Ronny barely seems to live in the same universe as the other male McCarthys. In the show's first moments, he walks in on his family watching the Celtics and announces, "The Celtics are the green ones, and they're playing the Miami!" ("The Miami"? Really?) Even before he suggests the Miami Heat should be named after Gloria Estefan's backing band, it's clear the writers have lost the thread. Any character clueless enough to announce that "the Celtics are the green ones" in a Boston home on game night is a caricature. This is a disappointment the rest of the episode only reinforces.
Based on its pilot, The McCarthys fits into a long history of shows in which gay men are nonthreatening, recognizable more for token characteristics than for any real humanity. This portrayal was in vogue especially 10 to 15 years ago when sitcoms like Some of My Best Friends, starring Jason Bateman as a homo obsessed with Broadway and Bette Midler, got brief shots on the air. It's far from impossible for an effeminate gay character to feel true, but it is impossible when "gay" is that character's only trait. The recently departed ABC sitcom Happy Endings may have come close to being overpraised for its character Max, a gay man who cared more about sports and pizza than about personal hygiene, but Max was revolutionary -- not only because he wasn't a stereotype, but because he went on dates and struggled to hold a job and had a life independent of his straight friends' dramas. He was nobody's sidekick.
With The McCarthys, CBS, the perennially successful network, has a chance to try something new, to show how traditional families engage with their gay children and siblings. So far it's put a well-drawn happy family in conversation with a character that's utterly lost without them. A lot of people love nostalgia, but this is a throwback of the worst sort. There's still hope, though. Maybe future episodes will see Ronny moving to a new city, beginning to date, and building a life that's not exclusively about self-denial. That we'd watch.
The McCarthys premiered Oct. 30 on CBS. Watch the preview below: