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It was 23 years ago today that NBC series LA Law inadvertently started a somewhat lamentable television craze: "The lesbian kiss episode." The specific episode in question is season 5, episode 12, titled "He's a Crowd." In the 30-minutes episode, lesbian CJ Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) helped vulnerable lawyer Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) brush up on her skills. At the end, CJ kisses Abby, who's apparently down with the affectionate gesture. It was the first same-sex kiss on television. It was monumental moment for pop culture, but not so much for the characters: CJ was written off and Abby ended up with a man.
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Producers said at the time they wanted to give CJ more depth, but Greene, the actress who played Abby for five years, later said it was all a publicity stunt. It worked: Despite very little outrage (right-wing protests, yes, but only about 40 negative phone calls to NBC), the show received massive media attention, higher visibility, and a new gay audience.
The episode also became the prototype for the aforementioned lesbian kiss episode: a single installment, usually delivered during sweeps, in which an inconsequential and temporary character kisses another woman and then disappears forever.
The New York Times' Virginia Heffernan explained it all:
"Eminently visual; cheap, provided the actors are willing; controversial, year in and year out; and elegantly reversible (sweeps lesbians typically vanish or go straight when the week's over), kisses between women are perfect sweeps stunts. They offer something for everyone, from advocacy groups looking for role models to indignation-seeking conservatives, from goggle-eyed male viewers to progressive female ones, from tyrants who demand psychological complexity to plot buffs."
Though "the lesbian kiss episode" was big in the 1990s -- see: Picket Fences (1993) Roseanne (1994), Party of Five (1999) -- it continued well into the 21st Century, as seen on Friends (2001), The O.C. (2005), and even The Simpsons (2012), on which Lady Gaga smooched a befuddled Marge. Where and when will the lesbian kiss episode appear next? Sweeps week is just a few weeks away, so it could be anywhere, and we all have LA Law to thank -- or curse, depending on your perspective.
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Watch a clip of the LA Law episode "He's a Crowd" below: