An occasional series in which I get over-analytical about TV’s gay characters. Case study #1: Beaver Falls.
With the greatest of respect, Beaver Falls is a show that, from its title downwards, does not exactly invite the viewer to expect much in the way of subtlety. It promises a sex comedy, that’s pretty much what it delivers, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’d been watching it and enjoying it, and actually thinking it had really found its feet in its second series, which finished a couple of weeks ago on E4. Going into series two, I wasn’t aware that one of the characters would be coming out in the fourth episode – and I was pleasantly surprised that the show handled it in a sensitive and progressive way.
First of all, the storyline was reasonably unexpected – the suggestion of a gay storyline had been teased at the end of a previous episode, but there was little in canon prior to this episode to suggest that this was on the horizon. The character in question, Mac, had been introduced as Rachael’s husband and therefore as the love rival of A-Rab, and I assumed he’d be playing out all of the tropes that would accompany that role (in other words, being an impossibly perfect specimen) before ultimately proving himself vaguely despicable in some way leaving the original couple free to reunite. There had been hints, of course, that Rachael and Mac’s marriage had its issues, and the previous episode had given a fair bit of airtime to the fact that they weren’t enjoying a particularly active sex life, but while that could be seen as laying the groundwork for a sexuality-conflict storyline, it could equally have been setting up any number of alternatives. The only other hint, in hindsight, was that actor Tom Austen got a fair bit of attention in the gay press when the series launched, but I just assumed that was because he was a very handsome man rather than because of any specific gay storylines relating to his character. Certainly, the show seemed determined that this was one plot it didn’t want to tease too soon in advance.
As is often the case in such storylines, Mac’s latent sexuality was revealed when, in a moment of weakness, he kissed someone he shouldn’t have: in this case, Beaver Falls’ resident stoner Barry while the two were sharing a joint. This was the first of several things the show did right: Barry’s easily the most laid-back character in the series, for what I should hope are obvious reasons, and his reaction to the situation can best be summed up as “dazed amusement”. As a panicked Mac made a hasty exit, Barry just chuckled something about Mac not being able to handle his weed, and thought little more of it. In fact, he was so unperturbed by it that he related it to his friends A-Rab and Flynn the next day, considering it just the latest in a long list of amusing things that happened to him while blazed, and by implication suggests that it isn’t even the first time he’s kissed (or been kissed by) another man in a drug-induced haze. This is another point in the show’s favour – although the kiss quickly becomes the subject of gossip, there’s nothing malicious in it in the slightest; in fact, it’s completely matter-of-fact. Even A-Rab, who has the most to gain from this turn of events, doesn’t take much of an interest in it – at least, not at first. There was something very refreshing about this – obviously the premise of the show indicates that its principal cast consists largely of open-minded twentysomethings, but it felt quietly groundbreaking in its own way that the strongest reaction anyone had to the news was mild surprise.
Of course, at least a few of the general coming-out tropes had to come into play at some point, so we saw Mac suddenly feeling a desire to reaffirm his heterosexuality and going off to have Really Good Sex with Rachael, and then completely denying all knowledge of the kiss the next day. But there was still something very interesting about the way the show handled this: after some typically persistent questioning from Rachael who, thanks to the intervention of A-Rab, doesn’t entirely believe Mac’s “nothing at all happened” story, an increasingly anxious Mac tells her that it was actually Barry who came onto him – and of course everyone at the camp finds this version of events far more believable, because Mac’s the studly jock and Barry’s the stoner weirdo (who also happens, conveniently, to have accidentally dyed his clothes pink). Again, the show gets a lot of credit for not having Barry react angrily to the accusations – even after a fair bit of harassment from a visiting rival camp over the rumours, it’s the hostility that’s annoying Barry more than anything else. As he says to his girlfriend Kimberley (who, again to the show’s credit, isn’t remotely bothered by the rumours): “I don’t give a shit whether they think I’m gay or not; it’s the fact that they’re using it to attack me.” That, I think, is probably the most progressive and brilliant thing that the episode does: it never suggests that homosexuality is a problem, but it makes it very clear that homophobia is.
It’s actually a very good episode for Barry, who comes to Mac’s defence on numerous occasions despite Mac attempting to frame him for instigating the kiss. He senses that something’s wrong with Mac, and initially assumes that he’s just annoyed that people are taking a silly stoned kiss as something serious – but when Mac’s reaction indicates that it was indeed something serious, he goes out of his way to help, even attempting to publicly out himself at the basketball game to get people to leave Mac alone. There’s also an interesting subversion of one well-used conceit here: to prove that the kiss didn’t mean anything, Barry kisses Mac again – and they’re being filmed by some of the kids from the bunk when it happened. Given that we’ve already established there’s a large screen at the basketball game being used to blow up the action and make it all look more exciting, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the kids will either accidentally or deliberately air the kiss on the screen to force the issue out into the open. In fact, the opposite happens: realising that they were caught on camera, Barry attempts to play the footage on the screen to prove that it was entirely innocent, but the camera has the wrong tape (/memory card or whatever) in it so it’s not available. It’s only a little thing, but it really impressed me how this episode flirted with our expectations only to deliberately lead us in the wrong direction.
Despite all of this good work, the outing of Mac isn’t entirely without its problems – largely that in focusing so much on the effects that the kiss has on Barry and Rachael, we don’t really get to experience much of it from Mac’s point of view. Instead, we just see him looking increasingly troubled throughout, until the end of the episode when the secret is officially out there, and even then it’s clear he still isn’t really comfortable with what happened. It’s as much an issue of sequencing as anything: this is the fourth of six episodes, so while there’s potential to continue to explore what this means for Mac as a character in the rest of the series, there isn’t a lot of time in which to do so (and since it’s rumoured the series isn’t coming back, those two episodes might be all we’re getting). Tom Austen does a fine job as the conflicted and terrified sports star, but he’s not really given that much to do other than fret handsomely. There were some good, subtle character notes in the midst of the episode though: for example, Mac never actually said “I’m gay” during his climactic scene with wife Rachael, instead he just said “I’m sorry” a lot, which felt a lot more realistic for someone who was still struggling to come to terms with the reality of the situation himself. I was also pleased that, for all Mac’s emotional distress, we never saw him crying – although the tear-streaked coming-out scene is a gay TV tradition, I don’t think it would’ve worked here because there was something very defiant about Mac’s behaviour throughout, and a complete breakdown like that would’ve felt out of character.
I still have two episodes of the series left to watch (I’m a bit behind), so I’m interested to see to what extent the after-effects of Mac’s outing are explored, or whether the show considers this the end of the story, but I have to say that on the whole I was pleased to see a coming-out story being told in a way where the vast majority of characters reacted as though the possibility that a friend of theirs might be gay was actually no big deal, and they just wanted to make sure he was all right. As I’m sure we’ll see if this feature continues, that sort of level-headed thinking is frequently lacking in plotlines like this.