Until just a few years ago, there were three main ways that a gay bar could be used in a sitcom. There was mistaken identity, in which straight guys who unwittingly found themselves in a gay bar were wrongly tagged as gay (see for example “Lamont, Is That You?” a 1973 episode of Sanford and Son). Then there was the they’re as boring as we are approach, as in a 1977 episode of Maude where the liberal firebrand takes her bigoted neighbor to the local gay watering hole. Finally, you had the accidental reveal—used, for example, in “Emmet’s Secret,” a 1995 episode of Grace Under Fire, when Grace and her boyfriend accidentally wander into a gay bar, where she spots her ex-husband’s father who tells her he’s in love with another man. These stories focused on straight people freaking out—even Roseanne’s Roseanne Connor had a meltdown when a visit to a lesbian bar ended with her locking lips with Mariel Hemingway.
These days, thank goodness, straight characters are a lot less uptight—Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope regularly hangs out at The Bulge, Pawnee’s premier homosexual attraction—but this week’s episode of Raising Hope (Fox, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.) was the best representation of a gay bar I’ve ever seen on a “straight” TV show. The characters’ curiosity about “what goes on in those places” was genuine and sweet—and their unjudgmental joy of discovery incredibly touching. (It’s been a good week for mainstream television broadening its audience’s horizons. Last Friday Grimm aired an episode that I called “the best mainstream acknowledgment of our multilingual nation.”)
When naive single father Jimmy Chase (Lucas Neff) is embarrassed by his need for help in understanding what his fiancee, Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), and her gay friends are talking about, he decides to go to a gay bar so he will “know what their words mean.” His father, Burt (Garret Dillahunt) admits that he, too, is “super gay curious.” “I’ve always wanted to know what goes on in those places,” he says. “Who buys the drinks. Do they have a women’s bathroom, or just twice as many urinals? If you say to the bartender, ‘I’m in the mood for some nuts,’ what do you get?” Naturally, he decides to tag along.
Burt’s initial disappointment—“I thought there’d be more hot pants”—is alleviated when he runs into two friends, wholesale flower vendors Steve and Guy. Jimmy asks all the questions—about glory holes, bears, and waxing—and improves his gay IQ. Burt, meanwhile, finds the absence of women liberating—he’s so comfortable in the company of men, he even fast-dances.
Indeed, Burt’s total lack of heterosexual panic starts to worry his wife, Virginia (Martha Plimpton). It’s not that she’s concerned that going to the bar will turn him gay. She’s just disappointed that they’re going to spend Halloween—which is, after all, “gay Christmas”— apart. Eventually, though, she dons a Charlie Chaplin costume and sneaks into the bar—after a long wait because “this place gets crowded when you’re allowed to wear a mask”—so she can slow-dance with her man. This, inevitably, causes a little confusion when Jimmy and Sabrina see Burt making out with the little tramp. It’s the TV gay-bar trifecta—mistaken identity, they’re as boring as we are, and the accidental reveal—all pulled off without a shred of homophobia.
Of course, there was one thing Raising Hope could have done better: the name of the bar. Gay-bar naming conventions—from long tunnel-like things to hard pounding things and things that get pounded—are a rich source of humor and innuendo. Unless—like Jimmy “Who wouldn’t want a shower made of gold?” Chance—I’m missing something, “The Polka Dot” seems like a lost opportunity for a laugh.