A few years ago, in the middle of the U.S. marriage equality debate, my mother asked me, “Why do they want to get married?” (She was conservative, but also had genuine curiosity about the world.) I told her she had the wrong pronoun – if she swapped in “we” for “they,” there are as many reasons as there are people. Or it could be that one big reason.
She died two years ago at 90, and it’s a shame she’s not here now to see television and streaming boasting a record number of 2SLGBTQ+ characters: 433, according to a recent GLAAD report, up from 329 last year. (That’s one in 11 characters, or 8.8 per cent – close to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s claim that 10 per cent of humans are queer. U.S. and Canadian statistics agencies, which conducts surveys, put the number lower: the U.S. at nine million, or 3.8 per cent of its population; Canada at one million, or 4 per cent.)
These days the most conventional TV love stories are queer ones, on shows as diverse as Glamorous (Netflix), The Lake (Prime), Somebody Somewhere (HBO/Crave) and Tiny Beautiful Things (Hulu/Disney+). Unlike earlier iterations of queer love on TV, there’s nothing traumatic or outré about them; they are properly sweet.
Teenage characters in The Lake and Tiny Beautiful Things, played by Madison Shamoun and Tanzyn Crawford, respectively, aren’t startled or concerned by who attracts them. They’re just working through classic teenage dilemmas: What if I like two people at the same time? What if the person I ache for is using me?
The adults’ love dramas are equally typical. In the first minutes of The Lake’s second season, our hero Justin (Jordan Gavaris) is swimming at his cottage. His boyfriend Riley (Travis Nelson) jumps in and proposes. Justin says it’s crazy but yes, and they share a swoony kiss in the peach-and-melon sunset. Their wedding is as decked with streamers, twinkling lights, tearful guests and heartfelt vows as any Julia Roberts film – until, just like a Julia Roberts film, Justin panics and runs. Not for a shameful reason, merely a human one: He’s not ready.
The rest of the season centres on Justin winning Riley back and culminates – spoiler alert – in a Bush Prom (an ironic-but-not prom at a campsite) scene complete with a slo-mo entrance set to the romcom pop staple, Sixpence None the Richer’s Kiss Me, and a slow dance where the reunited couple dissolves into a kiss as the camera pulls back. The fact that they’re both wearing frilly, jewel-toned dresses (it’s a Bush Prom thing) only adds to the delicious cheesiness.
Over on Glamorous, nearly every major character is queer, and in the throes of maybe-requited love. Marco (YouTube personality Miss Benny), the second assistant to cosmetics queen Madolyn (Kim Cattrall), is continually drawn to finance bro Parker (Graham Parkhurst) even though Parker is a jerk. Marco also toys with his smitten co-worker Ben (Michael Hsu Rosen) – because that’s what a narcissistic but vulnerable influencer is supposed to be doing at age 22. Meanwhile, Madolyn’s first assistant Venetia (Jade Payton) sends mixed signals to her co-worker Britt (Ayesha Harris), but only because she’s overcommitted to her job.
Created by Jordon Nardino (Smash), Glamorous is the same kind of “gourmet cheeseburger” (that’s the vibe that Netflix exec Jinny Howe famously said the streamer aims for) as Emily in Paris – complete, alas, with the same weak writing. It’s eye candy as mildly diverting and ultimately predictable as any Hallmark Christmas movie, and that’s saying a lot for a show where the lead character unabashedly takes MDMA and grinds in their underwear at a drag club.
The tenderest depiction of queer love on TV this year is the gorgeous third episode of The Last of Us, where Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman make the miracle of finding love during a zombie apocalypse pale next to the miracle of finding love, period. Their melancholy joy in growing older together is a love story for the ages.
But running a close second for me in 2023′s greatest hits are the duo of queer love stories in the second season of Somebody Somewhere, set in Manhattan, Kansas. Joel (Jeff Hiller) is the world’s best friend to the series’ star, played by Bridget Everett, and watching him tiptoe delicately toward love with Brad (Tim Bagley) made my heart purr. (Brad is a history teacher, and their first kiss comes right after Joel says – and means it – “I could listen to you talk about the Kansas Nebraska Act all day.”)
In the season finale, Fred (Murray Hill), a trans man, marries Susan (Jennifer Mudge), a cis/het woman, complete with all the trappings of a typical millennial wedding: flower arches and fairy lights, mason jar glasses and joyfully bad dance moves. As in any tender marriage ceremony, we get a lump in our throats when the officiant says, “We love you, and we love your love.” As in every corny wedding toast, the couple cackles when they first call each other “husband” and “wife.” I mean, could anything be more traditional than Ave Maria, the song the bride requests for her walk down the aisle?
That’s the point of these love stories, of which there are many more (several of them on Netflix, including Big Mouth, Heartstopper, Pose, Sex Education and Schitt’s Creek). We (humans) want to love and be loved, and if that’s a cliché, we love the cliché.
Many of us have had to wait a long time for entertainment where we can see people like ourselves reaching for that and falling short, being selfish and making amends, blushing while being serenaded and kissing in the rain. And then one day, standing at an altar surrounded by friends in matching outfits, entering into the mystic company of the billions who’ve pledged those troths before them, and dancing their faces off to Gloria.
Near the end of that Somebody Somewhere episode, Sam teases her sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) – who’s also Fred and Susan’s wedding planner – for crying at the wedding-ness of it all. But Tricia is unembarrassed. “Just, love is so beautiful,” she says. “This crazy thing that’s been happening over and over for thousands of years.” We’re watching a more inclusive “we do” on TV now, and it’s about time.