In this day and age, if you’re basing a TV show on a real person, and that person is gay, you’d better have a damn good reason for turning them straight. Unfortunately, many felt that Rise showrunner Jason Katims failed that test when he talked to reporters during the TCA Winter Tour about why the lead character in the upcoming show is straight, when he was inspired by a gay man.
The series is based on Lou Volpe’s book, Drama High, which chronicled how as a closeted gay man he attempted to challenge his students by putting of edgy, thought provoking drama productions, such as Spring Awakening. However, in the TV series Volpe becomes Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Josh Radnor), and he isn’t in the closet because he’s straight and a family man.
When asked about this Katims is reported as saying, “We took [the book] as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it my own story. With Lou’s family life and Lou’s family itself, there’s a lot of reimagination. Not just in terms of gay or straight, but in terms of the family structure.”
Many sources also quote him as suggesting that one of the reasons he turned him straight was so he could ‘connect with the story’.
It is this latter idea that many have taken particular issue with, feeling it harks back to the endless examples of Hollywood striahgwashing, justified because either the makers couldn’t connect with a LGBT character or they decided the audience coudln’t. Or as Daily Beast’s Ira Madison III suggests in a tweet, ‘A story about a closeted gay man putting on Spring Awakening sounds a lot more interesting than a story about another Mr. Schue [from Glee]’.
Unsurprisingly US TV network NBC and those behind the show have been keen to suggest that what Katims said has been taken out of context, and that his full comments show that Rise is still committed to LGBTQ inclusion. They just decided to go a different way with the main character, and that, as with all other aspects of the series, the book and characters it was based on were treated as inspiration rather than adaptation.
Katims, along with executive producers Jeffrey Selle and Flody Suarez, released a statement to EW saying, “The misinterpretation by some of what we’ve done with this show goes against what we fundamentally believe and who we are as individuals. We are firmly committed to LGBTQ inclusion, and most of all, are excited for the community to see Rise, which we believe portrays positive depictions of LGBTQ characters and stories on broadcast television with honesty and sensitivity. To that end, we worked with GLAAD on the show’s LGBTQ storylines to ensure they are told with respect and authenticity.”
It also also worth noting that despite what some have said, Katims never directly said he turned the character straight to help connect with the story.
The showrunners full comments from the TCA panel were: “Well, I think that the source material that you’re talking about, Drama High and that teacher, Lou Volpe, was such an inspiration to me and to everybody doing the show. To see somebody who, as you said, spent 44 years dedicated to this program was amazing. And I really hope that — and believe that — we carry a lot of his spirit into the show. But in terms of the adaptation itself and why we made that decision, it’s like as you said, it’s very much we took that as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it, you know, kind of my own story. And I definitely didn’t want to shy away from issues of sexuality and gender, but was inspired to tell the story of Michael, this transgender character, and Simon, who’s dealing with his emerging sexuality and growing up in a very sort of conservative religious family. And those stories felt like they were sort of resonant — resonated with me kind of as a storyteller, and I wanted to kind of lean into that. And then really with Lou’s family life and Lou’s family itself, there’s a lot of reimagination, not only in terms of whether he was gay or straight, but in terms of that family structure. Like, for example, you see in the pilot there’s a storyline with his son, Gordy, who we suggest has a drinking problem. As you go on and you watch the next several episodes, even in episode 2, that turns into a very a major story line and becomes, I think, a very powerful part of our storytelling. So, you know, I really wanted — I felt like it was important to me to honor what the source material was, but then to also kind of make it my own so that we would all be able to sort of lean in and do the work that we need to do as actors and writers.”
Although it seems the producers are sincere in what they say, there will undoubtedly be many who feel it’s still straight-washing and continues the very, very long history of film and TV taking inspiration from LGBT characters and then either turning them straight or hiding their sexuality. Even if you include different sexual and gender expression elsewhere in the show, to many it will still feel like pandering and laziness to make the lead heterosexual.