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American Television, Situation Comedies  
 
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While the queerness of Bosom Buddies derived from its explorations of men in drag, in 1981 NBC presented a made-for-television movie revolving around the life of an openly gay man. Sidney Shorr: A Girl's Best Friend was a serio-comic feature starring Tony Randall as the eponymous Sidney, an openly gay man who befriends a troubled single mother and her young daughter. NBC quickly adapted the movie into the sitcom series Love, Sidney but, because of pressure from conservative religious groups, just as quickly downplayed Sidney's homosexuality.

Larry Gross has noted that, as a result of this backpedaling, Sidney's sexuality tended to be so subtly coded that innocent viewers could readily misunderstand it. In fact, according to Gross, the only clues to Sidney's homosexuality were his crying at old Greta Garbo movies and having a photo of his dead lover, Martin, on the mantelpiece. Despite the network's attempts to conceal Sidney's sexual orientation, however, the show's writers continued alluding to it coyly in almost every episode. Precisely because of the show's clever writing, Love, Sidney also became a favorite of television critics, although it failed to garner sizable audience ratings and was cancelled in 1983.

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Somewhat surprisingly, Sidney's demise ushered in a new openness for queer sitcom characters. In 1984 subscriber network Showtime debuted Brothers, a comedy about three brothers, one of whom, Cliff Waters (Paul Regina), was unapologetically gay. Brothers, which ran for eight seasons, was the first weekly series on either cable or network television to showcase an openly gay recurring character portrayed sympathetically and non-stereotypically. The show was among the first to deal honestly with queer issues such as social prejudice, coming out, and self-acceptance. Brothers also addressed AIDS in the early years of the epidemic, and its sensitive handling of the disease in a comedic setting became a touchstone for later cable and network shows.

In television comedy as a whole, AIDS had a resoundingly profound effect. However, more often than not sitcoms encouraged the perception that gays were to blame for AIDS. Moreover, they frequently suggested that by spreading AIDS gay men were ruining the lives of everyone else.

In 1987, as part of its second season, CBS's Southern woman-centered sitcom Designing Women explicitly drew the connection between heterosexual problem and homosexual culpability. The episode entitled "Killing All the Right People" had, as part of its dual storyline, twenty-four-year-old Kendall Dobbs (Tony Goldwyn) dying of AIDS and asking the women to plan his funeral. Kendall's disease tied in neatly with the second plot, in which series regular Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts) has to defend condom distribution to the PTA of a local school.

However, Mary Jo argued for condoms only as a means of protecting children, not as a way to stop the spread of AIDS, which the episode tacitly connected with promiscuous homosexual behavior. Thus, as Emile Netzhammer and Scott Shamp observe, even though Kendall is portrayed as sweet, well adjusted, and sympathetic, the episode subtly blames his homosexuality for his fatal condition.

Queer characters were not, however, always brought on expressly to incorporate social awareness into a comedic setting. NBC's The Golden Girls, another woman-centered sitcom, included an episode dealing with lesbianism. The 1986 episode "Isn't It Romantic" featured Jean (Lois Nettleton), a gay college friend of Dorothy's (Bea Arthur) who drops in for a visit and subsequently falls in love with dimwitted series regular Rose (Betty White). Rose, who has no idea that Jean is a lesbian, is flattered when Jean reveals the nature of her affection. After some discussion, however, the two women decide that their friendship is sufficient.

A similar brush with lesbianism also took place on Designing Women in the 1990 episode "Suzanne Goes Looking For a Friend." The episode centers on ditsy Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) who, with no one to accompany her to a charity benefit, digs through old beauty pageant memorabilia in search of her "best girlfriend," Eugenia Weeks (Karen Kopins). After reuniting with Suzanne, Eugenia tells her about coming out, which Suzanne misinterprets as a debutante presentation to society. Only after a fun evening with Eugenia at the charity benefit does Suzanne discover that the aforementioned "coming out" was out of the closet rather than out in high society.

Even though these episodes contained substantial amounts of broad humor and were generally well-meaning and sympathetic in their portrayals of gay men and lesbians, they tended to become formulaic, as they spawned many variations well into the 1990s. A standard episode would feature a heterosexual recurring character having trouble accepting a person who had just come out. Inevitably, however, by the end of the show, the straight character would do something magnanimous and, in so doing, overcome his or her homophobia.

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