An ideal gay character

The Better Half and I just finished the final episode of “Downton Abbey”‘s second season last night.  Or rather, I finished it and he dozed off midway through (as is his wont) and will have to go back and watch it again.  It was marvelous, and I can’t wait for the next season.  [Confidential to RW: we’ll have to talk soon and compare notes, now that I’m all caught up.]  It’s some of the best television I’ve seen in ages.

Before I go on, I should warn that the rest of this post gets a little spoiler-adjacent for anyone who hasn’t seen all the episodes yet. While I won’t be giving away any major plot points, I will discuss the arcs of a couple of different characters.  (Yes, obviously the title of this post and the accompanying picture do give something away right off the bat, but as it’s revealed in the first episode it seemed OK to me.)  Consider yourselves alerted.

There is much to recommend the show.  The acting is uniformly superlative.  The writing is fantastic.  The setting is opulent and a feast for the eyes.  But one thing struck me as I watched last night — “Downton Abbey” has the best gay character I’ve seen yet, certainly on TV.  I am, of course, referring to the treacherous footman Thomas.

Fans of the show might be very surprised to read that.  Thomas is, in addition to being gay, a complete bastard.  He is conniving and nasty and utterly self-centered.  When he gets jilted in the very first episode, it’s his most sympathetic moment in the whole series so far.  From that point on, he’s a total louse.  O’Brien, the lady’s maid who is the other main unsympathetic character, is given some redemptive moments in the second season.  Thomas?  Not so much.

And that’s as it should be, from my perspective.  The character really is poisonously self-interested and needlessly cruel.  Perhaps in the coming season some kinder aspect will emerge, but I find him refreshingly realistic and admire the writers for keeping him consistent.  But what makes him such a great gay character is that his homosexuality is given no more or less weight than any of the character traits of anyone else on the show.  It is referenced only insofar as it is relevant to the plot, which does not otherwise revolve around it.  In fact, as far as the storyline goes it’s more salient that Thomas is hateful than that he’s gay.

As it happens, the only other gay character I can think of who is treated similarly is also a very recent creation — Max on “Happy Endings.”  That show is a sitcom that revolves around the love lives of its characters to a great extent, so his gayness is brought up more than Thomas’s.  But it’s just one aspect of his character, and in plenty of episodes it doesn’t get brought up at all.  Plus, his love life has the same ups and downs of the other unmarried characters on the show.  He’s allowed to have boyfriends, get dumped, etc.

Contrast that with the characters Will and Jack on “Will & Grace,” a show I liked at first and came to despise.  Will, despite being a gorgeous man with a successful career and a great apartment, was strangely sexless for a ridiculously long time; he didn’t get a boyfriend until after I’d given up on the show entirely.  And Jack was such a mess of stereotypes and tics that he set my teeth on edge.  It was a minstrel show, with the blackface swapped out for jazz hands.  Every episode was all gay, all the time.  To the extent that it showed mainstream America that gays aren’t super-scary leather daddies out to recruit young children into a life of disco music and flower arranging, I’m grateful for it.  But it was a way station, not a destination.

Even the characters Cam and Mitchell on “Modern Family” have their drawbacks.  Don’t get me wrong — I love that show, and I love their relationship.  And I recognize that the show’s schtick is based on playing up the quirks of each of the couples — the May-December pair (with a Latina wife!), the brittle suburbanites.  I get it, and I respect the fact that Cam and Mitchell are gay parents isn’t given more attention than Phil’s goofiness or Gloria’s feistiness, and that they’re given more to work with than just their gayness.  (Cam in particular, as a football playing sometime clown from Missouri with pretensions of being a singer, has a lot going on.)  But still, they’re very much the gay parents in the ensemble.

Not Thomas.  He’s not the gay footman who is also duplicitous and arrogant.  He’s the duplicitous, arrogant footman, who also happens to be gay.  Which is just exactly how it should be.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. The character that got me was Dexter on Six Feet Under.

    They spent the entire show making him unsympathetic and then, at the end, they showed us that he was gay… and it felt like that was supposed to make him a character with added depth, or something. I made it to the end of the second episode of the first season and never picked it back up.

    • You missed a lot; the first two seasons of 6FU were some of the best TV ever (it went way downhill after that.) David Fisher was a pretty unpleasant guy, and a lot of that came from being so deeply closeted (though also a lot from sibling rivalry with his popular and charming but irresponsible brother.) It worked for me.

    • It took me a minute to figure out who you meant at first. You mean the character David, played by the guy who went on to play Dexter, right?

      Six Feet Under is another one of those series that I started out liking and came to strongly dislike, and I found it doesn’t hold up well to repeated viewings. The first time I watched I found David more sympathetic, and probably gave him more benefit of the doubt because of the whole “closeted and miserable” plotline. By the time I watched the series again, I found I disliked him much more. My dislike increased as the seasons went by. However, in fairness I also came to dislike just about all of the characters.

      • Yes. I have a horrible memory for names for the most part (though, oddly enough, I’m pretty good with handles).

        Anyway. Him.

        It wasn’t the dislikable that turned me off. Hey, some people are. That’s art for ya.

        What I didn’t like was that it felt like the authors used gay as a shortcut. Does that make sense?

        • It certainly does. And I agree that the writers did, to some degree, use David’s gayness as a simple way of making him more sympathetic.

  2. My wife and I have a running joke based on a gay character in Law and Order (the assistant D.A. played by Elizabeth Rohm). We used to watch the show religiously, and never saw a hint of her character being gay (or of having any sexual interests of any kind), until the very end of her final episode, where she gets fired and asks, “Is this because I’m a Lesbian?” Wait, what? How could they fire you for being a lesbian if absolutely nobody ever knew you were a lesbian?

  3. Agreed, agreed. Interesting how its not much of a big deal to the characters, either. I will say this for Cam and Mitch. Most gay relationships are not dealt with, or are perfect. Cam and Mitch probably have the most tension of anyone on the show. But I agree that their gay patenting is very gay salient gay gay gay.

  4. Ha! When I read the title of the post, the character that immediately came to mind was Max from Happy Endings. My favorite gay character in part because his homosexuality is not central to his character. Which helps me address him as a character rather than as a gay character, which since I am not gay helps me relate to him better.

    When it comes to black characters, I sometimes find that the best ones I run across are those in casts that are mostly black. Why? Because then they’re just a character, and not the black character. Which is actually a more complicated thing than it appears. To pick another (part) black character, Avery from Grey’s Anatomy, I liked him because his race was secondary to a character that I took a liking to and could relate to. Yet, if the writers have to downplay the race of the character, and this could be perceived as that, well… I can understand why that would grate.

    One of the greatest female detectives I have ever run across was Claudette Wymms from The Shield. Notably, the character was to be designed as a man (“Claude Wymms”), which actually gave the character a more rounded and interesting personality than they seem to have the guts to give female cop characters they often seem timid to do (the female characters tend to righteous, feminine, and bland – in part for fear of alienating, I’d guess).

  5. I wonder if people from Minnesota ever get tired of being portrayed as wholesome and earnest.

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