Exceeding my Gay Expectations

I’m not going to lie. I started watching “Penny Dreadful” for a couple of reasons. For one, I will watch anything Eva Green is in. She is quite simply one of the most intriguing actresses working today. Secondly, Josh Hartnett is back. Personally, I’d always thought more of Hartnett as an actor than a just a heartthrob, but there’s no denying his sex appeal, and a few years wiser has only enhanced that, in my opinion. But what probably most drew me to the show was that one of the fictional characters being re-purposed for this story (along with Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, and Mina from Dracula) is perhaps Oscar Wilde’s most famous creation, Dorian Gray. His inclusion gave me a surging sense of “gay expectations”.

Now, in fairness, Dorian Gray, the lead character in Wilde’s novel “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” is not explicitly gay, but Wilde himself definitely was, and since it was a criminal offense to be gay, we can understand why his character was hidden under a cloak of heterosexuality. You don’t have to do much reading between the lines to see what the real themes of the novel are. Past film attempts have overlooked the sexuality inherent in the story and focused more on the obsession with youth and beauty. You’d think that in the over-a-century since it was published, we’d be able to approach Dorian’s sexuality without a veil, but as recently as 2003, another amalgamation of 19th century archetypes, the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, cast Stuart Townsend to play Dorian as crowd-pleasingly ambiguous. It’s probably just as well the movie was such a clunker.

So my ears definitely perked up learning about Penny Dreadful’s inclusion of the character, but it was tempered with a cautious optimism. After all, I’d been burned before. Starz adventure series DaVinci’s Demons cast hunk Tom Riley as an almost-superhero version of the famed artist, inventor and homosexual, while glossing over that homosexuality in a single episode as a mere “experiment” that almost got him jailed.

In John Logan’s Penny Dreadful model of Dorian Gray, however, we have a version of the character that much more resembles what I think Wilde had in mind. Not strictly gay (because, hey, it’s the 1800’s) but sexual, the trailer for the series showed glimpses of him lounging, open-robed, amongst a sea of naked bodies of both genders. We don’t actually meet him until episode 2, where he’s experimenting with early forms of pornography with a consumptive female hooker. And he’s played by the appropriately too-good-looking Reeve Carney. Trapped inside his own youthful beauty (a portrait painted of him magically ages, while he does not) Gray needs to find increasingly perverse ways to entertain himself. So, it makes sense that in episode 4, he brings Hartnett’s character (Wild West Gunslinger Ethan Chandler) along for a night of debauchery that includes the theater, dogs eating rats and back to Dorian’s for night cap of absinthe.

It’s here that you first begin to feel the turn in the tone of the evening. As a viewer, I began to dread the seemingly obvious upcoming moment where Dorian makes a move on the handsome and rugged cowboy, only to be politely, or worse, violently, dissuaded. Then, you remember that John Logan wrote that amazing scene in Skyfall where villain Javier Bardem tries to unsettle Daniel Craig’s James Bond by hitting on him and Bond replies with a simple yet loaded, “What makes you think this is my first time?” And that’s when it happens. Hartnett’s Chandler, granted driven mostly by the absinthe and the memory of some pretty horrid things leading up to it, storms across the finely appointed parlour, grabs Damian’s beautiful face, and plants a passionate kiss on his lips. It’s kind of breathtaking, especially as you realize it won’t end with someone getting assaulted. Sure, I thought we’d get to see Dorian messing around with some hot Victorian twinks over the course of the season, but this? This was something else entirely. Hartnett’s Ethan is the straight male lead of the series, and not only has he just started making out with another guy, he was the initiator.

That kiss ends the episode and the next episode is a more self contained flashback on Eva Green’s character so the aftermath of the kiss isn’t addressed. How that aftermath is handled will, I’m sure, be up for debate. You can’t ignore that neither of these characters are gay by today’s definitions, so one should be cautious about giving it too much progressive credit, but in the context of this one, simple moment, it represents a sea change in our collective consciousness.

I call it a sea change because a couple of nights later, while watching the new AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire featuring the dreamy Lee Pace as a fictional entrepreneur attempting to reverse engineer an IBM computer in the early eighties, our assumed straight male lead locks lips with a potential investor’s trophy husband as a way to manipulate the investor. In the old days, if a writer was going to lead a character “down that road”, it would be much more implied, but this is not a subtle fingering of the lapel, this is a full on, Brokeback-under-the-stairs kind of kiss. The episode walks away from the kiss with virtually no insight into what our main character’s motivations are beyond trying to manipulate a situation through sexual intrigue. Again, is he gay? Bi? Whatever he is, he does not fit the default straight guy mold that most other male protagonists seem to, by unspoken law, fall into.

Finally, all this brings me back to another surprising moment in which a lead character explores their homosexual feelings. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood on Netflix’s darling drama “House of Cards”, with the help of his wife, seduces their male bodyguard Meechum during the series second season. It would be easy to shout foul because Frank is the villain of the show, and point to the implication that gay=murderous psychopath, but he’s also the protagonist. For better or worse, he’s the character you root for. There’s definitely a conversation to be had about Pace’s H&CF character using the other character’s attraction to him disingenuously, or that Hartnett’s ravaging of Carney was simply the effects of the absinthe and therefore doesn’t count. It leads to the next logical question: You’ve shown us the homo-sex, what about the homo-love? Still, I’m pleased that it seems the hetero-normative way of telling these types of stories has taken a back seat to a more explicit approach. For now, these men, these central characters, regardless of motivation, are kissing other men, and that just seems to be the way it is.

Only time will tell if these particular stories will bear fruit in a way that satisfies our need to tell honest stories about men who have sex with other men, whether they be gay, or bi, or just manipulative, or whether it’s just the latest way that writers have found to be provocative, the bottom line is that having men kiss does not automatically defer to the lowest common denominator’s need to express an “ick” response. It’s definitely something that Goyer and the producers of DaVinci’s Demons might want to consider as they map out further adventures for their hero.

It’s surprising and a little embarrassing to think how outside the box it was for Scandal to feature a lead character who was both female and black as recently as a couple of years ago. I understand that having a gay protagonist in a drama that is not about the protagonist being gay is probably quite a ways down the pike, and we still have a lot to learn about the aforementioned characters motivations and future encounters, but as long as guys like Josh Hartnett and Reeve Carney and Lee Pace and Kevin Spacey keep grabbin’ and kissin’ each other, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.