Oh, how the times have changed. It used to be that a “Yep, I’m gay” moment for a TV character was an end-of-episode shocker. (Sadly, Ellen lost its funny after the big reveal. Suddenly the sitcom had a responsibility beyond making people laugh.) There was a time when a show created extra characters for the sole purpose of filming a kiss between two men and risking an advertising boycott. (I loved thirtysomething!) That was a safer way to play the gay card. These random characters could be written off after the Very Special Episode. (On thirtysomething, the characters Peter and Russell appeared in four episodes each, only two together. Financial losses from the gay kiss on thirtysomething had a chilling effect on televised displays of affection. On Will & Grace, the first kiss between Will and a date did not come until the third season.)
A character’s gayness can still be a source of dramatic tension (Empire) and some misguided plot points. (What do you mean Jamal slept with Alicia Keys?!) But we’ve moved on. Gay TV characters can exist safely beyond the set of Will and Grace (and Jack and Karen). They can reveal themselves and expect little more than a shrug or a half-raised eyebrow. My god, their coming out moment doesn’t even take us to commercial. The viewer doesn’t need to catch his breath. The surprise is not dramatic enough.
Such was the case when we learned that Randall’s biological father, William, is gay (or bisexual) on last week’s airing of This Is Us. Sure, that’s news. The fact William has a thirty-six-year-old son tells us he had sex with a woman at least once. (I’m proud of that “C+” I got in Sex Ed.) I had not thought William was gay. I made an assumption that I’m sure 100% of the viewers made. I hadn’t thought much about William’s life beyond Randall’s house. Really, my one persistent worry was, Who’s taking care of his cat? Adding an unexpected character element didn’t so much as shock as open up another story line. It merely gave William something to do other than show mild discomfort over stomach cancer and spout words of wisdom about accepting your slice of pie. Now he has a life-before-(and-beyond)-the-Pearsons.
If anything, my only reticence in the William Is Gay (or Bisexual) revelation was that his (ex?) partner aired his grievances over being abandoned in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. It was a semi-cryptic public shaming. While Jessie may be bitter and feel jilted, his speech gave me a bad first impression. Don’t accuse William of being indirect in abandoning you and then be indirectly confrontational in return. Maybe I’m just overprotective of soft-spoken, kind-hearted, life-of-hard-knocks William. He’s a poet. He was denied connection to his son by Mama Bear Rebecca. He’s got a terminal disease. Kid gloves, Jessie. I don’t want to see William on his deathbed this season. (I just might have donated to the Canadian Cancer Society to try to save a fictional character.)
I can get past Jessie’s poor form at the N.A. meeting. I didn’t have anything invested in him to start with. As he made is grand speech, I didn’t yet know what the point was of this seemingly random Narcotics Anonymous heckler. My mind even wandered to wondering if Kate’s Weight Watchers group might meet down the hall in the same building. Maybe she and William could carpool next time. (Anything to give Kate more screen time…with a character that doesn’t give a crap about her weight.)
So William is gay (or bisexual). I greeted the news without the “hooray” of old. Been there, done that. More of a restrained “oh” followed by a pensive “hmmm”. I do look forward to seeing how William navigates his numbered days between his newfound family and Jessie. Let the drama play out as messed up and endearingly as the rest of the story lines. Let William be a fully realized character. Let him deal with more of the dysfunction that is indeed life.