For more than 100 years, stereotypes have been a fixture in developing comedy routines in popular entertainment…the fat Italian man who belches garlic, the Fagan-like Jew who sits under a single weak light bulb counting gold coins, the dumb blonde, the lazy Latino who perpetually is seeking siesta, and the African American who fractures the English language and is afraid of his own shadow. Today, most would agree that these are not only inaccurate representations, but indeed are offensive and obsolete tools for creating comedy.
And yet, PBS, whose appeal is to an educated and up-to-date audience , is offering a Britcom, titled VICIOUS, starring Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, and Frances de la Tour—three talented and respected actors. The show focuses on two aged gay men who have shared a London flat for 48 years. In each ½-hour episode, they insult each other almost non-stop -- and share moments with an elderly woman who is sex-obsessed, an attractive young man who is the new neighbor, and a more than half-dead dog.
This gay couple, Freddie Thornhill and Stuart Bixby, is an extreme stereotype. They flit about and purse their lips while emitting catty barbs—nasty, gossipy, insulting lines to and about each other and their friends. They are fictional throwbacks to a time when much of the public thought of gay men in terms of limp-wristed dainties, poseurs with vicious tongues.
In episode 3, Freddie, an actor who is up for a minor role in DOWNTON ABBEY, asks Stuart: “Do you think I can pass for 50?” to which Stuart replies: “I’m not sure you could pass for alive.” In a previous episode, Freddie calls Stuart “you stinking pile of turd” and Stuart counters with “you cheating slut.” Sometimes the conversation is so funny that one can’t help but laugh; other times, it is simply mean-spirited and nothing more.
Now, if all the barbs don’t have you falling off your chair with laughter, then an incessantly-blaring, over-zealous laugh track will challenge your sense of humor.
The creative force behind VICIOUS is American television producer/writer Gary Janetti , who is responsible for the very creative and entertaining gay-themed WILL AND GRACE series. Does Janetti feel that we have entered into such an age of confidence in the general acceptance of gay lifestyles that a situation comedy featuring two blatantly old-style stereotypes works?
In the case of VICIOUS, the first three episodes have provided a string of cutting, often quite humorous bantering. But we don’t get close to these characters; we only hear their one-liners. If we could share some intimate moments that don’t include insulting remarks—if we could witness a few interesting situations unfold, then VICIOUS would be more worthwhile. We need to get beyond the facades of Freddie and Stuart in order to find the heart of their characters.
VICIOUS cannot be easily written off. Should we commend Janetti and company for daring to show a stereotyped gay lifestyle, or should we condemn them for daring to show a stereotyped lifestyle?
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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