Los Angeles — While the issue of gay marriage has received its share of television news and talk show time, it has been largely absent from TV series -- until now.
Showtime's "Queer as Folk" charges into the debate in the season's last two episodes, in which partners Michael and Ben (Hal Sparks and Robert Gant) ponder marriage and decide it's right for them.
But their joyful, legal Canadian wedding founders on the U.S. prohibition against same-sex unions.
The scene in today's episode (9 p.m.) in which Ben proposes is superficially mundane, with familiar words of commitment and a ring. Whether the gesture is seen as promising or unsettling is up to the viewer; those involved in the show hope it's the former.
"Michael Novotny, you are the man I've been looking for all my life," college professor Ben Bruckner says. "I'm so very blessed to have found you. Which is why I am asking you to do me the honor of accepting my hand in marriage."
Michael, a comic book creator who's usually an optimist, is unsettled and shares his feelings with a friend, Brian (Gale Harold).
"It wasn't a story I told myself, the way straight kids did," Michael says. "That one day I'd meet that special person, and we'd fall in love and have a big wedding. For me, it was never real."
When cynical Brian derides the idea of homosexuals needing marriage or society's blessing, Michael protests: "It's also our God-given right to have everything straight people have. Because we're as much human beings as they are."
"You're a writer. Rewrite the story," Brian replies.
Series producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman are eager to do some revision of their own on attitudes toward gay marriage in America, especially as the stakes rise with proposal of a constitutional ban.
They created the story for today's episode (along with Shawn Postoff, who wrote the teleplay) and wrote the July 18 finale in which Michael poignantly questions whether his Canadian marriage, discounted back home in Pittsburgh, meant anything.
Stephen Macias, national entertainment media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, GLAAD, previewed the episodes.
"I thought they dealt with the issue very well, in a way that people watching the show can relate to, straight or gay," Macias said. "'Queer as Folk' has always been groundbreaking, and they continue in that tradition."
Michael's entrenched view of marriage as unattainable reflects real-life gay attitudes, Lipman said. But that's changing with explosive developments such as the Massachusetts court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.
"All of a sudden someone says, 'Yes, this could be part of your history.' ... It really is a profound thing for gay people," Lipman said.
Cowen and Lipman, longtime personal and professional partners, have challenged society's attitudes before, most notably in the breakthrough 1985 TV film "An Early Frost," about AIDS.
The creative freedom that the pair have on pay-cable channel Showtime to write about homosexuality and hot-button issues such as gay marriage was nonexistent then.
Instead, they had to pick their way through network apprehension and timidity in writing the movie, which starred Aidan Quinn as a young man who discloses his illness and homosexuality to family and friends.
Cowen easily summoned memories about script negotiations with NBC's standards and practices department that reveal just how much television, if not always attitudes, have changed.
In one scene, Quinn's character brought his boyfriend home to meet his grandmother, played by veteran actress Sylvia Sidney. "I like your friend," the grandmom was to say.
"The network said the line was out," Cowen said. "We said, 'What in the world is wrong with that?"' NBC's response: "She's the matriarch of the family, and what she's saying condones homosexuality."
Oddly, the network was unconcerned about an AIDS-stricken character, very flamboyant and prone to outrageous statements. Asked why, network officials offered an outrageous statement of their own, Cowen said: "They said, 'It's OK for him because he dies."'