Mainstream television and film's depiction of homosexuals has always been tentative at best. While openly gay characters have been showing up more frequently on both screens in recent years, too often the characters in question have been used as comic relief or the sensitive friend, instead of being fully developed people in their own right.
The idea these people might be either sexually active or involved in long term relationships is something nobody seems to want to admit. This is especially true for gay male characters. While there are some shows which make a big deal out of having sexually active lesbians, they seem to be more about fulfilling heterosexual male fantasies than actually being about the lives of gay women.
The few times attempts have been made to honestly depict the lives of gay men the backlash against the shows in question has been swift and cruel. (A television adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, depicting life in San Francisco in the 1970s aired in the 1990s and resulted in some of the Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS) stations airing it receiving bomb threats and other forms of intimidation) To think the atmosphere might have changed since then is to be incredibly naive. Just look at the opposition to same sex marriage in the US and the laws being passed in other countries making homosexuality illegal.
So it takes a certain amount of courage on the part of PBS to decide to pick up the British made situation comedyVicious whose main characters are a gay couple who have been in long term relationship for nearly fifty years. Airing for six consecutive Sunday nights at 10:30pm EST starting June 29 until August 3 2014 the show not only features two gay characters, but stars two openly gay actors in the title roles, Sir Ian McKellen (Freddy) and Sir Derek Jacobi (Stuart). Freddy is a moderately successful actor who occasionally still receives small roles on television shows, but they are both pretty much retired. However, the show deals mainly with their rather tempestuous personal life and the friends who become caught up in the cross fire.
The two men seem to be in a constant state of open verbal warfare with almost every word they direct towards each other being an insult. While some of the exchanges verge on cruel, McKellen has the memorable line "I'm never quite sure when I've gone to far, but I'm always happy when I do", they are obviously born out of habit and long familiarity. However, it's not just each other they treat with apparent disdain, as their long time friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) comes in for her share of insults from both men during her frequent visits to their flat. While the insults are initially shocking, we quickly become as inured to them as the characters as we realize how little impact they have.
The first episode introduces a new diversion into their lives in the form of a new neighbour. Ash (Iwan Rheon) gives whole new meaning to the term "straight man". For not only is he straight, he's also a new audience for the boys and their friend, and they can't help putting on a show for him. At first non-plussed by walking into an apparent free-fire zone, Ash soon figures out what anybody with eyes can see.
That beneath the caustic comments flying between Freddy and Stuart lies genuine love and affection. He also proves he's not the oblivious young man they've taken him for. Unsure of his sexual orientation ("You just can't tell these days") Freddy tries with an increasing lack of subtlety to get Ash reveal his nature. As the episode ends he pauses before leaving their apartment and, with a big smile on his face, tells them he's straight.
As Freddy and Stuart, McKellen and Jacobi are magnificent. They manage to walk the fine line between caricature and character beautifully. While part of the fun is listening to these two classically trained actors deliver lines like "bollocks that was a bitch" in their beautifully modulated voices, it's also a delight to watch them having so much fun creating the relationship between the two men. For over the course of the six episodes they gradually reveal the depth of feeling which exists between the two men. They might snipe at each other constantly, but let anybody else treat one of them with anything less than respect, and each will quickly rise to the other's defence.
As their sex-starved and lonely friend Violet, de la Tour manages to take a character who in most people's hands would have been flat and one dimensional and turn her into a funny and real person. While she flirts shamelessly with Ash, loading her conversations with enough sexual innuendo to make a teamster blush, she also manages to show us the loneliness lying beneath her rather carnivorous exterior. The boys tease her mercilessly about her countless disastrous relationships, but she's part of their extended family and trusted and loved accordingly. You have the feeling they wouldn't put up with each other's behaviour if there wasn't a genuine bond between the three of them.
Initially viewers might be confused as to why the young man Ash continues to hang out with these people who seemingly have so little in common with him. However, Rheon does a very credible job of showing how his character sees Freddy and Stuart as a mixture of surrogate parents (his father is serving a ten year sentence for armed robbery) and friends he can come to for advice.
He looks at them and sees the genuine affection they feel for each other beneath the bitchy comments and can't help but admire and envy them their closeness. The episode where he brings a girl friend over to dinner with the boys is priceless. Not only is it hilarious, we watch as Ash's relationship dissolves over the course of dinner, it also throws in stark relief the difference between a real partnership based on trust and love, and one based on nothing more than wanting to be in love.
While Vicious is a brilliant show filled with great acting and genuinely funny dialogue, I'm sure there are bound to be plenty of people who will find it offensive. Both those who object to positive depictions of homosexuality and the politically correct who don't have a sense of humour will find something to object to.
However, they should all just grow up and learn how to be more accepting. The latter might decry how unrealistic the show is in its depiction of gay couples, but I've known plenty of couples, both straight and gay, who act just like the two main characters. For those of you not so full of yourself and able to see past this type of crap, this show will delight you. Vicious airs on PBS Sunday evenings at 10:30 pm EST from June 29 to August 3 2014 - check your local listings for times and stations.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as TV Review: Vicious Starring Sir Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi)
(Originally posted June 2014)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.