'Husbands': Gay Marriage Gets the 'Mad About You' Treatment

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A new, Web-only sitcom from Buffy writer Jane Espenson watches a same-sex couple navigate the challenges of newlywed life

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Over the last decade, the conversation about equal marriage rights for gay couples has largely centered around responsibility. The push for marriage is about proving that gay people are as—or sometimes even more—capable of monogamy as their heterosexual counterparts. But though setting yourself up as a model minority may be an important way to argue for legal rights, real equality means the right to make mistakes and bad decisions—and to work your way out of them.

That assumption is the basis for Husbands, a new Web television series that premieres tomorrow. The show follows the adventure of two out gay men—Cheeks, an actor, and Brady, a professional baseball player—who after dating for six weeks, get drunkenly hitched in Vegas. They decide to stay together, for the cause of marriage equality, and for each other. While gay couples are increasingly common on television, from the sweet pairing of Kurt and Blaine on Glee, to Mitch and Cam, the settled-but-not-legally-married parents of an adorable adoptive daughter on Modern Family, they largely fit that responsible-pair model. Husbands, by contrast, trusts that its audience won't judge a gay couple for treating marriage as cavalierly as straight couples have been allowed to for decades. By going small on the Web, Husbands can raise bigger questions about the future of gay relationships than its longer and better-financed network counterparts.

"When we did Will & Grace, we were attempting to extend the recent gains Ellen had made when it revealed to America that the spunky gal they were already in love with happened to be gay," says Husbands director Jeff Greenstein, who won an Emmy in 2000 for his work on Will & Grace, and is a writer and executive producer on Desperate Housewives and State of Georgia, which premiered this summer. "Over the course of eight seasons, we were able to gently move both these men into mature relationships. And by that I don't just mean two guys lounging on the sofa watching Funny Girl, but falling in love, planning a life, kissing on the lips and sleeping together. Which for the time was kind of a big deal. It's been six years since Will & Grace, and gay guys on network TV are still lounging on the sofa watching Funny Girl."

Rather than emulating dramas like The Kids Are All Right or comedies like Modern Family as a way to explore the realities of marriage, the creators of Husbands looked to stories about young married couples no matter their gender. Jane Espenson, the show's co-creator and a veteran of shows ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Battlestar Galactica, took television shows Mad About You and Dharma & Greg as inspiration, while Greenstein looked to Barefoot in the Park. While most looks at gay couples tend to treat them as if they're established, Cheeks, the show's co-creator ,says he and Espenson stumbled on the idea of looking at the beginning of a marriage. "It seemed like such a classic, yet timely, premise," he says, as couples line up to marry in New York.

"Yes, the issue is serious, but every individual marriage is funny," says Espenson. "And just making that point is making a point about marriage equality—look how this is just a normal marriage in every way, including all of its own personal craziness."

In this case, the personal craziness includes negotiating closet space, the adoption of a tiny, overdressed dog, and the brand-new spouses' wildly different approaches to being famous. "From my POV, yay publicity and we look cute in shorts," Cheeks tells Brady after paparazzi video of their tipsy, shirtless nuptials leaks. "And from my POV?" the straightlaced Brady asks his husband, reminding Cheeks to think about what the video of their drunken wedding means for someone without a history of wacky public antics. Suddenly Cheeks gets it. "Remember that 9/11 thing?" he offers, acknowledging that what's funny for him is an epic disaster for his new spouse.

Marriage also means merging friends and family. Among the questions Husbands ask is what role straight women who are close to gay men have in a world where those men can create their own legally sanctioned and supported families. Espenson says that the show actually originated in comedy routine that Cheeks and Caprica actress Alessandra Torresani developed together, and then turned into a story about what happened when a wedding interrupts that kind of friendship.

"She's a girl who has had it all and has gotten it all, but her one form of validation in life is Cheeks," says Torresani says of her character, Haley. "Before she goes out of the house, she needs to know, 'Does he think I look good?' That he goes, without her really knowing, that he gets married...She's like, 'I don't understand...he's awful, he's not funny.'...At this point, Cheeks definitely does not need Haley at much. But still at the end of the day, he would never give her up."

Another kind relationship up for debate in Husbands is less personal and more public—the way role models relate to their fans, particularly when the role model is a professional athlete. Brad wasn't a professional athlete in early scripts, but Greenstein suggested that the character be given a reason to stay in the marriage. By making him an out and active pro athlete, Brad acquired a sense that his life isn't really his own, and a worry that, like Julie and Hillary Goodridge, the plaintiffs in the landmark Massachusetts case that legalized same-sex marriage for the first time in the United States who split five years after they married, he might undermine his own work on marriage equality by getting divorced.

"As a pro baseball player, he feels that he has a responsibility to always put the right foot forward...he feels he must dispel what the 'other side' thinks what a gay man is—[someone who lives]a debaucherous lifestyle unfit for family," says Sean Hemeon, who plays Brady, and grew up playing sports in the shadow of three athletic older brothers before landing the role on As the World Turns that brought him to Hollywood. "When Cheeks and Brady get drunk married, to Brady this just proves what the 'other side' thinks...So it's really important to Brady to keep the image going."

And having Brady be an out athlete lets the show explore not just the pressure gay role models are under but also the culture clashes within the gay community. Cheeks may be better-versed in stereotypical gay culture than his new spouse, more comfortable with outrageousness and high camp—and therefore with his accidental and highly public wedding. But he doesn't know very much about what Brady does or how he'll fit into a world of baseball wives. Brady, by contrast, falls into the idea that gay couples need to subdivide their lives into gendered roles, his traditionalism giving him a sense of marriage that even straight couples might find outdated.

And that's exactly the point of Husbands. No matter the composition of couple—men, women, famous, unknown—no matter how the wedding came to pass—at the end of a long engagement, over cocktails and an Elvis impersonator—nobody knows a foolproof secret to perfect matrimony. Gay couples aren't reinventing marriage. Every couple that gets hitched has to figure out what being married means to them and how to make it work for themselves.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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