I didn’t want to like Happy Endings. Every fall, at least one network tries some dark magic in an attempt to resurrect Friends “for a new generation,” unleashes it on an unsuspecting public, and then blames some poor showrunner when it burns down the whole village in a fit of stupidity.
But Happy Endings charmed me. Mostly, Adam Pally charmed me as Max Blum — a hairy, horn-dog, no-good single gay dude. Max was the first gay man I’d seen on television who spent more time eating Cheez Whiz than applying “product.” The only gay thing about Max is that he sleeps with men — which is much closer to the real gay men I know. Not everyone is a Cam or a Mitchell, a Will or a Jack. In a weird way, Max is my TV avatar, too. Max dates men — and also likes the Bulls! I date women — and I also like pedicures!
The best thing about Max Blum is that the humor around/about/within his character isn’t usually about being gay. Adam Pally gets a lot of credit here — whether waking up bear-like from hibernation, rocking it as a professional Bar Mitzvah hype artist, or enjoying some floor bacon, he manages to be cuddly and disgusting all at once. There is no sense on the show that there are five straight friends plus one gay friend. In the best tradition of episodic sitcoms, these six friends define themselves by the situation they’re put in rather than their character’s gender, race, or sexuality. Take Sunday’s “Kickball 2: The Kickening.” The friends put together a scrappy kickball team to promote Alex’s store. Dave develops the yips, Jane pursues her own control-freak agenda, and Max becomes a Bad News Bears-style, gruff-but-lovable manager.
Last week’s episode, “Ordinary Extraordinary Love,” was a little different. After striking out at a gay bar, Max goes on a quest to find his “gay category,” complete with a squeaky-voiced gay guru. On first viewing, I read the episode as a Will and Grace throwback — an opportunity for straight people to have a good chuckle at those weird, idiosyncratic gays and their flamboyant lifestyles. While a few of the visual gags were kind of great (an ostrich party full of skinny white guys sticking out their necks!) — I didn’t really laugh.
On a second viewing, I read the episode as a breakup letter from a queer dude to a queer community that spends more time classifying people than getting to know them. In its final act, Max’s friends stop him from shaving his chest with Greek yogurt and encourage him to form his own subculture of one. I didn’t laugh at that either — because I know how it feels to want to shave your chest (or buzz your hair) in order to fit in.
When I was 21, I moved to Boston and went on a mission to meet girls. The only lesbian bar I knew was a place called Toast, where the dress code was strictly ripped jeans and white beaters. I once had the gall to wear a shiny pink tank top, and was asked multiple times whether I was just a straight girl playing wingwoman for a friend. Maybe if Max had been on TV back then, I would have had the backbone to say, “No, bitch! I’m a Pink Penguin! We have a super-hot dance night in Chinatown — Penguins only.” But instead, I felt inadequate, and went out the next day to try on vests.
The number of gay characters on TV grows every year (GLAAD says 4.4% of all network TV characters in this last season were LGBT) — but the narrow range of stereotypes fueling those characters, particularly lesbians, hasn’t really changed. There are ultra-femme women who gingerly discover their sexuality (like the women on Glee and Grey’s Anatomy) or ultra-butch women with ludicrously deep voices and really bad haircuts (like the “confrontational” lesbian couple that battled Mitch and Cam this season on Modern Family). Where’s the lesbian Max Blum?
Last night, in the awkward ramble heard ’round the world, Jodie Foster came out of the closet. In the process, she also indicated that she’d stayed in so long because she didn’t want to make it a reality show moment. “I’m not Honey Boo-Boo,” she said. She also isn’t femme or butch, aggressive or coy, Ellen or Portia. There isn’t really a narrative in our culture about a woman like Jodie Foster, whose lesbian-ness hasn’t consumed the whole of her identity. There certainly isn’t a character like that on TV right now — except for dear, sweet, disgusting Max.
Chances are good that ABC is about to pull the plug on Happy Endings. But for the sake of all the Optimistic Red-Velvet Walruses out there, I hope we all get one more season with Max Blum, and maybe a few more Pink Penguins to keep him company.