You can't choose family.
Unless you can. At least, that's the premise of the show airing tonight on the Sundance Channel with the tip-of-your-tongue title -- wait for it -- "Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boy
s." In other words, straight women and their gay best friends who are like platonic lovers/brothers/family. The title of the show is a way of avoiding the mid-20th
century ugly fag hag
and a nod to the Pet Shop Boys.
But before you sniff derisively, think again: We've never actually seen this relationship front and center. The gay best friend story line is always the laugh track, the comic relief, the occasional shoulder who disappears when the Real Love interest comes on-screen. Think Madonna/Rupert Everett in the depressingly awful "The Next Best Thing."
Or a certain television show
that ran for many years on HBO
. This is about more than "Straight Allies
;" this is about intentional family.
Says Sarah Ros
e, a travel writer and one of the show's stars, "The gay best friend is always the sidekick. He is not the primary player. In my friendship with Joel" -- Joel Derfner
, also a writer of books and musical theater and Sarah's partner on the show -- "we are primary players; it is a primary relationship in my life. No one is the sidekick. We really appreciate [Sundance] turning the lens on this phenomenon."
That's not to say there isn't a depressing undertone to the project. The voice-over at the beginning of the show calls the gay friends "men who will never leave us," which implies, well, that everyone else has. That's too bad.
There's a lot we've seen here before -- four couples, varied by age (sort of) and race (sort of, there's one black couple, and one South Asian guy), and income and job. We see their (director-enhanced) conflicts; we see them exasperated in their one-on-ones to the camera. Sundance calls it "docu-series," but let's be real. It's a reality show with all the attendant faux-drama/faux-problems/ staged re-enactments. It's also an unfortunate quirk of easy-television that this is all shot in New York, with the requisite traffic shots and park scenes, labeling each neighborhood as though it was a different city.
I talked with Sarah and Joel on Sunday after I watched their segments play out over four episodes. They met at Harvard as undergrads in the mid-1990s and have been 'together' ever since. Joel is now married to his long-time partner, Mike, and Sarah is still single and dating. Indeed their story line on the show inevitably (cringingly) carries undertones that rankle -- a stereotypical lonely career girl still searching and 'jealous' of her gay boyfriend's success in love. Some reviewers
have criticized Sarah for both her (apparent) envy (lines like "it should have been me!" when Joel announces his engagement don't help) and for letting the cameras see the ailing mother she supports, who suffers from early on-set dementia and takes Sarah's energy and time away from life and love.
But I think both Sarah and Joel come across as sympathetically as possible in a medium where there is no control, where the editing room is far from the streets and places where real conversations take place. Both of them are writers scrambling in an ever-dwindling world of money-making writing opportunities. Both of them signed on to help promote books (Sarah's smart "For all the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
" -- which is, to oversimplify, of the genre of David Grann's Lost City of Z
-- and Joel's hilarious/moving "Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever"
are both great, intelligent, reads.)
Each couple has a reason for coming on the show. Rosebud and Sahil are
both haven't-yet-made-it-actors. Sahil seems, poor guy, so intensely self-hating (he's not out to his parents -- at least not before this aired) it's hard to watch; Rosebud comes across in the show as flakey, at least as edited (She met her boyfriend in the subway! He was busking for money! And now they sing together and make woo-woo eyes!)
Elisa and David
are sort of the Patti Smith/Robert Mapplethorpe
of the group. They met at NYU in the early 1980s and provide an awesome Jew-y, punk-y, New York-y-ness that's aided by their decades of friendship. They run a vintage clothing shop together called Chelsea Gir
Nathan and Crystal
are the Power Black Couple. Crystal is an attorney/author/single mom of two who was once married to NBA Star Greg Anthony (
Seattle Supersonics) and is achingly gorgeous. Nathan is similarly beautiful. The two promote their own movie projects but the real story line is that Nathan, basically abandoned by his dad, wants desperately to be a father and Crystal doesn't buy it.
Some have accused Sundance for not taking this to a higher political level. It's not clear that this medium is able to be all that political, though. Breaks in action show each character offering flip fast asides on gay marriage and gay rights. It's not great, but it's better than nothing. More powerful are the real bits: Joel plans two weddings because only one state he and his partner are connected to (Iowa) allows genuine, legal marriage, but his friends live in New York. Hosting a gay wedding on TV, a real one, is still a pretty powerful idea. Letting America know that the man literally can't marry where he lives allows viewers to realize the impact of second-class citizenship.
GWLBWLB actually and often lets us care about these characters.
"I guess, I hope the show will ask people to ask questions, that's what I hope," says Joel. But both agree, as Sarah Rose told me, "if it blew up our friendship, it would not be worth it."