Jason Katims Can’t Relate: Will old-school homophobia damage NBC’s ‘Rise’?

It may sound like perpetuation of a cliche, but if you’re about to launch an ambitious big-budget TV musical drama about a performing arts high school, it’s probably for the best that you don’t alienate the gay community. Yet as we prepare for the premiere of NBC’s Rise, the new show from extremely talented Parenthood/Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims, a bit of a bruhaha has… risen. It emerges that the real-life teacher that inspired Josh Radnor’s character Lou Mazzuchelli (what a name) was — quite significantly — an initially closeted gay man.

On Rise, however, Lou will be straight. Katims’s excuse? “He made Lou gay so he (Katims) could connect with the character more”.

Oh dear, Jason. Not a good answer. I’m not usually a loud member of the representation police, but this looks pretty bad. Lou sounds like a more morose version of Mr. Schue from Glee to begin with, and that character had his heterosexuality aggressively reinforced over 6 seasons. So to make Lou gay, to whatever extent that would’ve proven relevant in Rise, might have differentiated the role beyond the obvious superiority of Radnor’s acting ability to that of Matthew Morrison (sorry).

Katims promises that sexuality will indeed be explored on the show, and it seems plausible there will be gay teen characters, but — merely from the perspective of a viewer who wants to be entertained — that’s been done. I’m disappointed to miss out on a more complex arc for Radnor’s character.

When I first read Katims’s quote today, I began to recall whether there has been good LGBT representation in his previous work, and the answer is quite a surprising “No”. For a storyteller who revels in the nuances of modern American society, there is a strange lack of gay people in his projects. Parenthood waited until its final few episodes for Haddie (Sarah Ramos) — previously seen in countless straight relationships — come home from college with a girl; yet the nature of their relationship was only (quite strongly) hinted at, and a more naive (ie. child) viewer could have exited Parenthood without any sense that any character had ever been gay, in 6 long seasons. I haven’t seen all of Friday Night Lights, but a friend assures me it’s also a little light on diverse sexuality.

This is all a pity, because I think Jason Katims is an immensely talented individual, and he seems like a lovely person too. Rise is a really promising show, and while I’ll certainly be watching, I worry how successful a show based on themes of optimism, inclusion and diversity can truly be when its target demographics have shunned it for failing to reflect them.