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American Television, Situation Comedies  
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Before long audiences tired of these essentially monolithic portrayals of gay/straight interactions, and television writers began to explore new approaches to queer television representations.

Expressions of Openness: The Early 1990s

As Hart has noted, in the 1990s glbtq people achieved wider recognition and greater levels of social tolerance than in the past, and the major network primetime shows began increasingly to represent diverse and inclusive characters who reflected the wide range of roles that queers occupy in American society.

In 1990, for example, CBS debuted the quirky dramatic comedy Northern Exposure, a show that followed the lives and loves of Cicely, Alaska's eccentric residents. While most of the relationships on Northern Exposure were heterosexual, the show was notable for its "just folks" portrayal of queer characters. The 1992 episode "Cicely" explained that the town was named after one of the lesbian founders who, along with her lover Roslyn, transformed the backwater mud hole into what they termed the "Paris of the West."

In 1994, the episode "I Feel the Earth Move" presented television's first-ever gay wedding; characteristically, most of Cicely's residents found nothing unusual about the nuptials.

Although there was a slight controversy surrounding Northern Exposure's gay wedding, in late 1995 another gay wedding on the popular ABC sitcom Roseanne was the center of a firestorm of protest. Queer viewers objected not to the episode, but to the network's decision to delay the episode's airing from prime time to a later, "adult" time period.

Leon (Martin Mull) and Scott's (Fred Willard) gay wedding on Roseanne was followed almost immediately by a lesbian wedding on the hit show Friends. In January 1996, the episode "The One With the Lesbian Wedding" showcased the marriage of Ross's ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) and her partner Susan (Jessica Hecht). Candace Gingrich, the lesbian half-sister of conservative former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, played the minister who presided over the ceremony. Unlike Roseanne's gay wedding, however, the Friends episode generated little controversy. This was due in large part to the absence of any same-sex kisses.

You May Now (Not) Kiss the Bride

Although in the 1990s queer characters and queer situations in television comedies began to be more accepted by mainstream viewers, same-sex affection was rare and kissing was practically nonexistent. ABC executives refused to allow Roseanne's gay couple, Leon and his lover Scott, to kiss because of boycott threats. This came as no surprise to the show's creator, Roseanne Barr, who had weathered similar protests over a same-sex kiss with Mariel Hemingway in the 1994 episode "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

As a publicly funded entity, PBS found itself vulnerable to conservative criticism and pressure when, also in 1994, it aired the hugely popular miniseries Tales of the City. Based on gay author Armistead Maupin's fictional accounts of freewheeling 1970s San Francisco, Tales featured a fair amount of adult language, nudity, and sexual situations, both heterosexual and homosexual. The series' ratings soared predictably but, as Rodney Buxton has remarked, Tales of the City generated enough controversy that conservative forces were able to pressure CPB (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting) to withdraw funding for the sequel, More Tales of the City, which finally aired in 2001 on subscriber network Showtime.

In the wake of the conservative backlash, Maupin commented in a New York Times article that letting the series' characters show affection was important. He had come to resent profoundly the way that the universal symbol of love, the kiss, had been reserved exclusively for heterosexuals on the television screen. Indeed, it would be six more years before viewers would witness, on the February 22, 2000 episode of NBC's Will and Grace, two gay male characters kissing in prime time.

However, as website columnist Alan Foster has noted, even though a same-sex male kiss occurred between Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack (Sean P. Hayes), the world hardly noticed, because NBC failed to give advance media notice for this gay milestone.

Although network television executives shied away from depicting overt expressions of queer affection, television viewers were nevertheless treated to an ever-increasing array of same-sex embraces, including numerous male-male kisses. Because they mostly occurred within the boundaries of farce or satire, however, these displays of affection were explained away as "joke kisses." Still, it was impossible to ignore the increasingly affectionate nature of queerly inflected, if problematic, characters in both sitcoms and sketch comedy shows.

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