overthinking the idiot box

May 16, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in

London Calling
Shiny Little Poofs and Threatening Gay Men
by C.J. Quinn

Much British entertainment television is built on the firm foundations of the fact that we love to laugh at The Gays. Only non-threatening, cuddly, campy gays, mind. The closest British TV got to portraying gay men as actual real live people was the wonderful Queer as Folk, liberally seasoned with naked male backsides and gay guys who weren't campy sidekicks but the heart of a show, often behaving like total knobs rather than AIDS-riddled saints or frou-frou fabulous latter-day Liberaces. Our QAF only lasted a series and a half, though, before it went gentle into the good night, and since then British TV has been more or less the undisputed territory of the Non-Threatening Gay.

Graham Norton: De-Edged
Just as the Queer Eye boys are the epitomes of the American Non-Threatening TV Gay, Graham Norton epitomizes the Non-Threatening Gay success story, having become ever more fluffy and gentrified as the years have gone by. For those of us who remember Graham on late-night weekend Channel 4 getting Thai ladies of questionable virtue to shoot Ping-Pong balls out of their vaginas live over a webcam, seeing him nowadays on BBC1 Saturday night offerings such as the utterly mental Strictly Dance Fever is something of a cognitive disjunct. No one shoots Ping-Pong balls from their private parts on Saturday nights on BBC1 — there are too many small children and grannies watching. Norton's edge has been worn away, turning him into a diminutive pantomime dame, about as filthy as a saucy seaside postcard.

Recently, one wonderfully trashy, crack-addled Channel 4 game show has taken the Non-Threatening Gay and figured out how to maximize his appeal across the board, creating an irresistible train wreck of a show that no one in my peer group appears to be able to look away from. Playing It Straight actually started out on Fox in the U.S., but was extremely short-lived there, taken off the air after just a few episodes. The premise of the show, if you never happened upon it when it was still in the schedules, is that 10 men and one woman are cooped up together in a luxurious Mexican hacienda (El Rancho Macho). The men all do their best to woo the lady via a series of improbable tasks — she must eliminate contestants every week, until she finally chooses one man as her successful suitor. So far, so dull dating show. The twist is that half of the men are gay, and no one — not the guys, not the girl, not the audience watching at home — knows who plays for the home team and who bats for the other side. If the girl picks a straight man in the end, she splits a 100,000 ($150,000) prize with him. If she picks a gay guy ... he walks away with the hundred grand, and she gets nothing. Every so often, the ubiquitous and increasingly skeletal June Sarpong pops up and acts like Zoe is her bestest buddy in the whole wide world, and every episode the delightful Troubadour (think Martin Short in Three Amigos!) strolls around with a guitar singing his thoughts on the likely sexual orientations of the boys (lyrics helpfully provided for you to sing along at home).

"I mean, maybe that's just me being stupid..."
Even more brilliantly, until she had met all the guys and been at the hacienda for a whole day, the girl — the pretty, incredibly vacuous young Zoe — had no idea that half of them were gay. When the news was broken to her over dinner with the men on the first night, she actually cried and hid under the tablecloth (because everyone knows if you can't see the queers, they can't see you). Whoever cast this show deserves an award, because in Zoe they've found the perfect reality TV stooge — she's just stupid enough to be unintentionally hilarious, without getting truly irritating. Everything you need to know about this woman can be summed up in her pensive thoughts to camera on the subject of one of the guys, a couple of episodes ago — "I really just want to think that he's straight, y'know? I mean, maybe that's just me being stupid ... but that's just who I am!" Yes, love. We know it is. That's absolutely the beauty of it.

The lineup of guys is also splendid. Straight or gay, they're almost all bland, utterly disposable idiots who think that wearing a loud, artily distressed V-neck T-shirt equates with having a personality. The show gets its hooks into you very quickly, because you can change your mind about who you peg for gay and who for straight every five minutes during an hour-long show. Are the camp ones giving the game away, or just misleadingly metrosexual? Is Ben the built builder just too manly for words, or does his enormous and scarily defined torso tip him over the edge into gay gym-bunny territory (the fact that a blogger dug up a shot of him as Mr. Gay UK a few years back might tip the balance somewhat)? Playing It Straight cheerfully has its cake and eats it too, cashing in shamelessly on gay stereotypes at the same time as it proves how difficult they've become to maintain.

We're firmly in Non-Threatening Gay territory here, of course — we have to be, since the show airs as a repeat on Sunday mornings before noon. One can't imagine the show with the gender roles reversed — lesbians, Tipping The Velvet notwithstanding, are still too edgy for mainstream British television. About the most risque the show's ever been was when Alex, who had outed himself during the course of last week's episode, was shown in an outtake at the end of the credits. The guys are interviewed all the time earnestly saying how much they like Zoe, what a great girl she is and how they're falling for her. In this outtake, Alex, who had lied with the best of them for weeks, repeated the cameraman's question — "Do I fancy Zoe?" — back to the camera, paused for a delicious split second, and then shot back, " 'Course not, she hasn't got a cock!" and burst out laughing.

The tasks the men must perform to win dates with Zoe and, ultimately, "win her heart" (or all her money) are wicked: pointless theatre of humiliation, from start to finish. Last week, for example, the final five had to wrestle each other on the beach in capes and masks as Zoe looked on, before playing a quick game of catch to test the theory that gay men can't (catch, that is). They then submitted themselves to trial by chili pepper, eating ever-hotter raw chilis to see whose iron stomach would keep them from vomiting the longest. They put up shelves for her, using a selection of power tools, and went out to a gay strip bar where Zoe spied on them and their reactions to a slightly minging stripper. Finally, as Zoe lounged around on a multimillion-pound yacht, they jumped 30 feet out of a helicopter into the sea to swim across and deposit a box of chocolates (presumably fairly waterlogged) at her feet.

Danny K returned to the yacht, wearing a tux, aboard a jet-ski, in order to make a suitable James Bond-style entrance, but on the way crashed into a boat full of tourists. The yacht's owner clearly having second thoughts about the wisdom of letting this idiot power up to his expensive baby on a jet-ski, poor Danny was ordered to stop 20 feet away, and then had to suffer the ignominy of jumping back into the water, still in his tux, and flailing his way (with his one good arm) through the waves.
The best thing about this last task was the fact that Danny K (or Baby Beckham as the other contestants call him, in a catty dig at his stringy blond locks and fondness for tank tops) had to do it despite that fact that during last week's cactus-chopping task he tore a muscle in his arm. Until you've seen a greasy David Beckham-wannabe suit up in black from head to toe and leap, clutching a box of chocolates with his one good arm, 30 feet into the ocean from a helicopter, you haven't really lived. Things got even better when Zoe, impressed by Danny K's efforts to win her hand, declared him the winner of the task and awarded him the chance to have a romantic dinner with her aboard the yacht at sunset. Danny K returned to the yacht, wearing a tux, aboard a jet-ski, in order to make a suitable James Bond-style entrance, but on the way crashed into a boat full of tourists. The yacht's owner clearly having second thoughts about the wisdom of letting this idiot power up to his expensive baby on a jet-ski, poor Danny was ordered to stop 20 feet away, and then had to suffer the ignominy of jumping back into the water, still in his tux, and flailing his way (with his one good arm) through the waves toward the waiting Zoe (who then had to help him climb aboard). And ultimately, all for naught — Zoe, lip trembling, eyes shiny with melodramatic tears, eliminated Danny K at the end of the day, only to find out that despite all his champion mincing, he is straight.

No one could claim that Playing It Straight is great television, but it is great trash television — shallow, shiny, disposable and silly. I've heard it said that the show's premise is inherently homophobic, since it relies on the idea that the gay guys will stick out like a sore thumb and thus Zoe will be able to pick them out easily, and since it relies on hoary old stereotypes of gay males (lots of shoes and skincare products, tight t-shirts, effeminate voices) but this is a misunderstanding of the way the game works. It certainly does trade in stereotypes, but it also subverts them — the show only works, in fact, because it's so difficult to spot the gay guys. As Zoe despairingly said early on, "Well, it's so hard to tell nowadays, innit?" As the show has proven, there are in fact a lot of straight men out there who can't live without their hair straighteners and their V-neck T-shirts (I'm not going to use the dreaded m-word again, don't worry), and there are also gays out there happily experimenting with the role of the chav and the shaven-headed tough nut.

Watching the show with a straight male friend last week interested me because he was fascinated, but at the same time slightly on edge throughout. I guess the show prompts straight guys to ask a vexed question: What defines het masculinity these days, if gay and straight men dress the same, style themselves the same, act the same? The Non-Threatening Gay is really non-threatening because he sticks out a mile, in his sequined suit jacket and loud silk shirt, as per Graham Norton's description of himself as a "shiny little poof" — if the gay men can blend so well into the crowd, and the straight men can be so convincingly gay, doesn't that blur boundaries in a rather threatening way? Is male homosexuality more scary when it's out of the closet, or when it's lurking inside it?

Perhaps the biggest problem with the show is that in order to stay in it, the gay guys have to lie constantly, and to everyone, about their identity, or at least that facet of it wrapped up in their sexuality. The strain of living as if they were back in the closet is too much for some — Alex seemed to have the hundred grand well in his sights, but ended up simply blurting out during a private dinner date with Zoe, "Look, I'm gay" after the lying got too tough. There's no place on Playing It Straight for being true to one's own self — it's a show about the triumph of style over substance (although what reality TV show isn't, to some extent?). On the other hand, no one twisted their arms to make them go on the show — as reality TV has shown us so many times, there's always, always someone who will go beyond the bounds of reason for a bit of fame and the possibility of a lot of money. And, of course, there's always someone out there willing to watch them do it.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 4.