When Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, it nearly ended her career and tanked her sitcom. 18 years later, three of Fall TV’s most-anticipated returning shows are featuring lesbian relationships.
This year’s two buzziest and top-rated sophomore dramas, Fox’s “Empire” and ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” both introduced interracial lesbian storylines for series regulars in their premiere episodes.
Fresh off an Emmy win for lead Viola Davis, “How to Get Away With Murder” revealed in its season premiere that her character, Annalise Keating had been in a past romance with her law school classmate, played by new cast member Famke Janssen, before she was married. The episode also saw the two characters reunite with a steamy kiss.
The second season of “Empire,” which premiered to a whopping 16.2 million viewers, introduced Marisa Tomei as the lesbian venture capitalist Mimi Whiteman. At Cookie’s coaxing, Grace Gealey’s Anika Calhoun (aka Boo Boo Kitty) attempts to secure Mimi’s investment in Empire by seducing the new character in an off-screen encounter. Sadly, Anika’s sexual dalliance with Mimi failed, prompting Taraji P. Henson‘s Cookie to tell Anika, “You can’t even dyke right.”
Though these returning broadcast dramas are surprising viewers by having established characters enter lesbian relationships or in “Empire’s” case a hookup, this influx of gay storylines isn’t isolated to just these two shows.
Ryan Murphy‘s “American Horror Story: Hotel” is entering into its highest-profile season to date as the departure of star Jessica Lange was met with the addition of a slew of new players, including Max Greenfield, Matt Bomer and Lady Gaga. The pop star will play The Countess, a glamorous hotel owner engaged in sexual relationships with several characters, including those played by Bomer, Finn Wittrock and Angela Bassett.
Several other shows over the past few years have been known for their prominent lesbian relationships, including Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and “Sense8,” “Orphan Black” on BBC America, and “The Fosters” on ABC Family.
Recent shows from the producers of “American Horror Story” and “Murder” — “Glee” from Ryan Murphy and “Grey’s Anatomy” from Shonda Rhimes — have also featured lesbian relationships involving some of their main characters.
“I think we’re finally able to look at the real world and tell real stories,” said Bradley Bredeweg, executive producer of “The Fosters.” “We’re at a very lucky time where this is the reality, and I think the networks and the studios are finally open to that.”
“That seems to have really been silenced. We don’t have that noise coming at us anymore,” Bredeweg said. “Maybe it’s because we’ve been on the air for three and a half seasons, but I also want to believe that it’s because times really have shifted.”
Times have definitely shifted since the days when advertisers were fleeing “Ellen.” DeGeneres is back on TV as the host of a massively successful daytime talk show, and even the most successful broadcast series can feature gay characters without fear of backlash.
“Once all of that backlash sort of went away, and she built this sort of monster hit of a career, I think she became a big, huge, monumental piece of that,” Bredeweg said. “I do tip my hat to her. I think she’s been at the forefront of a lot of this.”