Why CBS' 'Instinct,' With Its History-Making Gay Lead, Matters (Guest Column)

Television


On March 18, at 8p.m., on CBS, Instinct, a new scripted drama will premiere, starring Alan Cumming. Alan plays Dylan Reinhart, a former CIA operative-turned-university professor and best-selling author who becomes a consultant to the homicide division of the NYPD. Dylan is brilliant, witty, eccentric, loyal and fearless. Oh, and he also happens to be gay. Dylan’s sexuality — and the loving same-sex marriage he’s in — may be the fifth most-interesting thing about him. At the same time, Dylan’s sexuality makes the character the first openly gay lead in an American primetime broadcast drama. Yes, the first.

A little history: Almost 30 years ago, ABC’s thirtysomething broke ground and became the first U.S. primetime broadcast drama to show two gay men in bed together. In 1989. It took that long. The men weren’t allowed to touch each other, and still five of the show’s regular sponsors pulled out. Since then other broadcast dramas have blazed the trail, telling stories with queer supporting characters like My So-Called Life, ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and Grey’s Anatomy. (I am focusing solely on broadcast, scripted hourlong dramas.) Now here we are, 2018, also known as the Golden Age of television. But maybe not quite pure gold if you are “different.”

The representation of gay characters on broadcast dramas hasn’t exactly been tilted toward the top of the call sheet. My guess is there haven’t been a ton of broadcast drama pitches that begin with, “So … my hero is a tough-as-nails firefighter, with a substance abuse problem and … he’s out and proud!” And if there have been, none have made it to series. Queer characters find their representation in the ensemble, LGBTQ planets revolving around a straight sun. Which is regrettable, to say the least, as we in TV have the privilege of being invited into the homes of millions, not to mention their gyms, cars, waiting rooms and subway rides. We have the opportunity, and I believe a responsibility, to represent the world we live in with authenticity. While our primary job is to entertain, we also have a chance to make a positive impact on our culture, even if it’s a tiny one. Now in the hierarchy of “important” jobs, TV writer falls somewhere between a black-market appendix dealer and the NRA’s chief ethicist, but the messages we, as storytellers, send by depicting certain types of people in varying ways, or not depicting other types of people at all, can reinforce stereotypes, and leave the marginalized feeling, well, marginalized.

And in today’s political climate that would be piling on. There are still multiple states where someone can be fired just for being queer and out. Our current vice president has claimed that being gay is a “chosen lifestyle.” Yes, the guy a-heartbeat away from-the-presidency also opposed any attempt to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal status with heterosexual marriage. Oh, and while I’m listing some truths Mr. Pence holds to be self-evident, he advocated so-called “conversion therapy” to “cure” being gay. Needless to say, Mike won’t be dishing about Instinct by the Oval Office water cooler on Monday mornings.

But while I hope that some viewers do talk about Dylan’s sexuality, I’d like him to be judged by his virtues, flaws and quirks, not by who he loves. The success of every good TV show is built on the strength of the characters, and how dimensional, and relatable they are. As much as I would love to take credit for having the idea of a gay broadcast hero, and for creating such a layered character, the pilot of Instinct is based on the book Murder Games, written by James Patterson (an up-and-coming writer who I have a good feeling about) and Howard Roughan. In the book, Dylan is gay and in a same-sex marriage. While Murder Games is a fun page-turner, the idea of a crime-fighting/killer-catching/evil-stopping hero who is gay is what made me want to adapt the book for TV. It was something I hadn’t seen on broadcast TV, because somehow, he hadn’t existed yet. There’s not a lot of “new” left. Add onto that the notion of breaking worthwhile ground and I was in. Luckily, Alan Cumming was in as well. Aside from being an intimidatingly talented performer, and a really nice guy, Alan is a queer person. His life, and life experiences, help inform who Dylan is, and how he is depicted in the series. Alan is also a person who has used his voice to fight discrimination, the abuse of power and resist those whose moral compass seems forever stuck in the wrong direction. Alan is a formidable leader, brilliant, cheeky and brave. For me he is not just Dylan, he is the only Dylan.

But despite everything up to this point being about our hero’s sexuality, Instinct isn’t about Dylan being gay. We’re not going to see Dylan, or his husband, struggle with their sexuality. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Of course, this doesn’t mean the show will depict gay marriage as a fully accepted practice. But this is a New York cop show, wherein one partner happens to be a gay man, and the other, Lizzie (Bojana Novokic), is a straight woman. If you’re looking for a “will they or won’t they,” I can tell you, they won’t.

So why CBS? Well, when you want to take chances, showcase diversity, and appeal to a young audience where else would you go? (Please don’t fire me Mr. Moonves.) Actually, CBS bought this pitch in the room. Never have we been mandated, or gently requested, to change anything regarding Dylan’s depiction as an out, gay man. CBS has embraced the character’s sexuality, and his marriage to Andy (Dan Ings), enabling us in the writers’ room to focus on telling personal stories that are true, without having to worry about servicing any corporate apprehension. Yes, the first gay lead in a broadcast drama is on CBS.

That alone is proof that the TV tectonic plates are shifting. And while Instinct may be the first, there are others soon to follow. Without question, the representation of LGBTQ people on primetime dramas has improved. In fact, in 2017, according to GLAAD, of the 115 primetime scripted broadcast series, there were 901 series regular characters, and 58 were LGBTQ. That’s up from 43 LGBTQ series regulars the previous year. The reasons why aren’t just about correcting an underrepresentation, or human decency, there are monetary benefits to be had as well. GLAAD’s Accelerating Acceptance survey found that 20 percent of Americans ages 18-34 (yes, that demo) identify as LGBTQ. So, it’s the right thing to do, and it can be monetized. Everyone wins. Except maybe Mike Pence.

Speaking of whom … we are living at a time when people who are perceived as different are having their rights taken away, their safety endangered. Empathy and kindness are being portrayed as a weakness by our leaders; shame and civility have vanished; and simple things like, say, human dignity and truth are being perverted for political, or personal, gain. I can’t imagine a more apt moment to challenge people’s prejudices, to move against stereotypes. In fact, never in the history of television has there been a more important show than Instinct! OK, maybe we’re 290th on that list, but hopefully Instinct can help viewers who have never met a gay ex-CIA operative-turned professor-turned-author-turned-NYPD consultant realize they can connect, maybe even identify, with someone with whom they might have previously believed themselves to have nothing in common. Maybe a gay teen who wants to join the CIA will be inspired by Dylan. Maybe some in the straight audience will be surprised to see that same-sex marriage isn’t that different from wedlock between a man and a woman. Maybe in the next few development seasons there will be so many LGBTQ leads on broadcast dramas it will feel humdrum. Who knows, maybe 30 years from now, or three, someone will look back and reference Instinct as the first broadcast drama with a gay lead, and ask the question, “What took so long?”

Michael Rauch is the showrunner of CBS’ Instinct. His credits include Royal Pains, Life is Wild and Beautiful People.

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