If Real Street Could Talk, or Thinking about TV, Identity, Desire and Noah’s Arc

Quote of the Day: “You tell yourself you’re not my kind/But you don’t even know your mind/And you could have a change of heart” — Steely Dan, “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number”

A friend of mine once told me that he didn’t watch TV because there were no people like him anywhere on any channel. By people like him he meant very lightskinned black people. “You’d think we didn’t exist,” he told me once. I asked him if he ever watched soap operas, where most of the black people are fairly lightskinned, but he said no. I thought my friend’s reason for not watching TV was a little ridiculous, but I did understand the identification thing, the need to feel connected. Most people who aren’t white or straight or male (who see “their stories” everywhere) probably look to pop culture—watch TV shows and movies, read books or listen to music—to speak to their experience, to have their identities reflected back at them, to make them feel better or stronger or just there. How else can one explain, for instance, some of that stuff on UPN or some of those scary-bad rap tracks that pass for music these days?

I identified with Jonathan Rollins, the young, hot-shot black attorney played by Blair Underwood on L.A. Law back in the early 90s. He was what I call a Solo Negro, experiencing Solo Negro Syndrome, the only colored dude in an all-white environment, making his way through the world, finding a way to represent both his race and himself, even when there might be inherent contradictions in trying to do both. I identified with Peter Benton, the young black doctor on ER, often angry, sometimes sullen, but trying to make his way in the world, balancing family issues with work stress, trying to make enough cash while following a dream.

But I’m not one of those black people who thinks that the TV characters with whom I empathize or identify have to be black—light- or medium- or dark-skinned—like me. I’ve tried not to make the culture I appreciate dependent on or some extension of typical American identity politics. What’s the point in that? There’s more to peeps than race, gender, sexuality and class…uh, right? Especially if a character is well-drawn and interesting, right?

Heck, I’ve also identified with Sex & the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, the suburban kid with a dream of writing and the city life, living a Front Row life when I should have been in the balcony reporting, loving a Mr. Big who often seemed like he would never be Mr. Right. I’ve identified with Meadow Soprano and any other selfish, immature Ivy Leaguer (The WB’s Rory Gilmore? thirtysomething’s Michael Steadman?) chafing against the wishes of parents not educated in the same way, the same parents who only hoped and wished for (and provided for) the best possible life for me. I’ve lived the heartache and anger of a friend’s betrayal, like Dr. Sean McNamara on Nip/Tuck has, pondering my own mistakes as I seethed with the conundrum: can you really forgive?

I like a good story, some suspense, and looking at pretty people as much as the next dude, but I watch TV for characters, the kind you hardly find in the movies anymore, the confused, confusing, lived-in souls who’s ups-and-downs, even while terribly manipulated and manipulative, can often play like stark mirrors of one’s own foibles and successes and flaws.

For all that, it’s been rare that I’ve encountered a gay or bisexual male character on TV who resonated with me far beyond the mere sexuality we shared. I think Jack McFarland is funny but I have no clue what he means outside of his one-liners and clever repartee. Most of the Queer as Folk characters didn’t resemble any one I knew in real life, or wanted to know, really—Brian wasn’t as fine as the writers seemed to think; Michael was so milquetoast he seemed to disappear from the screen several times in the five years the show ran; Ted’s increasing desperation rang hollow to me. Only Emmett seemed like someone with real emotions; he seemed to come from somewhere concrete—literally and figuratively—and seemed to be the only one with any imagination. (I did appreciate Mel and Lindsay’s desire to leave the country as a result of the increasingly conservative political climate as well as Mel’s anger and frustration when Lindsay cheated with a guy…and I loved Debby, maybe because I’m a mama’s boy with a mother who a) loved me to pieces and never hesitated to let the world know and b) is the sort of every-mom other kids always gravitated to. But those three are, of course, women…) As great an actor as Michael C. Hall is, Six Feet Under’s David always seemed as phony a character to me as all of the characters in Alan Ball’s other opus American Beauty, and for the life of me, I just never got him and Keith as a couple—though I loved Bobby Canavale’s drunken come-on to Keith during his pop-star-bodyguard days.

So…I say all this to say I had one of the most refreshing moments of my recent TV viewing when I sat through Noah’s Arc, the new Logo show about a bunch of black gay friends living and loving in Los Angeles. It took me a few minutes to get the rhythm of the show, to decide if I was gonna roll with this crew of brothas, if I’d find them all interesting enough to come back week after week, to give my time and TV energy to. I decided the answer was yes. Not because of Alex’s racy, “crazy mama bear” one-liners (the Whoopi Goldberg/Ghost had me rolling). Not because Ricky will probably have a parade of lookers traipsing through that boutique of his. Not because Noah is a black screenwriter trying to make his shit happen in white Hollywood. No, I’ll tune in because writer/director Patrick-Ian Polk portrayed something rarely—if ever—seen on TV and got it so right that I’ll have to tune in just to see how he can keep it up. That something is this: the sexually-ambivalent black dude. As funny as the rest of the characters were, the most challenging character to me was Wade, the sexy screenwriter on whom Noah is crushed out, the corn-rowed pretty guy with a secret. I don’t recall ever seeing this kinda guy on TV; black guys are either tail-chasing, cool-posing hetero studs or neutered prigs who you’d never imagine getting any ass of any gender. Wade has some of the tail-chasing, cool-posing thing going on, but he’s conflicted about who’s tail he wants to chase: he wants Noah, is, in fact, “sexually enticed” by him, but he’s not “gay”, he wants to fuck a guy but not kiss him, he’s vain and competitive enough to strip his shirt off at a gay bar but scared of where his desire will lead him. Noah’s more experienced, but he’s scared too, of being played-out, of being a straight boy’s toy, of where his desire may in fact lead him. The tension—sexual and emotional, pre- and post-coital—of the last coupla scenes between Noah and Wade positively crackled, ripe with both sexual fulfillment and coming-soon (pun intended) suspense.

And, I identified. I knew Noah’s initial hesitation, eventual succumbing, and over-analytical post-intercourse questions. I’ve known my share of Wades, fantasy-figures come to life, heteroflexible dudes unsure of how to express their desire, eager for my experience yet inconclusive about their own. This was truly beyond the down low, if only because, even though Noah’s friends all had words of advice and caution, the show itself seemed to have no judgment, it just gave voice to one guy’s iffyness without condemning him outright. I’ve been Jonathan Rollins and Meadow Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw, but none of them resonated for me the way Noah did. Mostly, I guess, because of the details: I knew Jonathan’s angst but never worked in a law firm. I knew Meadow’s rebellious aspiration but I’ve definitely never been part of a mob family. I knew Carrie’s writerly reach for truth and love but I’ve never worn Manolo Blahnik’s or given up my life to follow a lover to Paris. I have, however, like Noah, been the non-hetero kat crushed out on the probably-hetero kat. I have, however, like Noah, found myself on the receiving end of that offer: the couch, the ambivalent guy, the pretty female between us, waiting to get our threesome party started. I have, however, like Noah, slept with the ambivalent guy, then called my best friend and begged for his advice when I knew the ambivalent guy would only end up breaking my heart when he should be just eating out his own.

I was sure I’d never see anything that close to home on my TV screen. And maybe it’s a little selfish–and little identity politic-al to feel this way–but I enjoyed it. I think I’ll be booking passage on Noah’s Arc.


In HUNG News: T-Minus 2 days til HUNG hits stores…

And also T-Minus 2 days til the next (and final) drawing of the HUNG Contest…and the word is there might be two winners this time…so get those emails in before Monday at NOON if you still wanna be entered.


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