Why you should be watching Husbands
Laura talks us through the many joys of Jane Espenson and Brad Bell's totes adorbs online comedy, Husbands...
A couple of years ago, I was wandering around San Diego Comic-Con when I stumbled across a signing going on at the California Browncoats table. There sat Jane Espenson - writer for wonderful treats like Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, and Once Upon a Time - with two young men. I sidled up to one of the guys and asked what the signing was for. Husbands, he told me, an online comedy about marriage equality.
The three of them agreed to an interview (how could I pass up an opportunity to interview Espenson on one of her new projects?) and we talked about their plans for the show they were just about to shoot. Set just after marriage equality becomes law across the entire United States (and thus still, unfortunately, in the future), Husbands is about new couple Brady, a professional ballplayer (played by Sean Hemeon of True Blood, Criminal Minds), and Cheeks, an internet sensation and actor in Miserable Rich Kids (played by creator/writer Brad Bell), who head to Vegas to celebrate… where they get drunk and, you guessed it, wake up the next day, married. Of course, as the first federally recognized gay married couple, there’s a lot of pressure on them not to be the first gay divorce (“That was the head of GLAAD on the phone and they’d really prefer it if we didn’t emerge from our drunk-den and file for divorce!”) so they decide to give it a go. In other words, they said, it’s Mad About You, only about two guys…and a fag-hag, wonderfully played by Alessandra Torresani (Caprica).
I have to admit that I didn’t have much hope for the online comedy initially. As someone who grew up with a lot of gay friends, I was painfully aware of how a lot of shows about gay characters go. Either we get Queer as Folk with its in-your-face-confrontational quality on one end of the spectrum, or the fun-but-ultimately-fluffy Will & Grace on the other end. While both do resemble a sliver of the gay community, the majority of that community exists somewhere between the two, and that middle range has gotten very little attention.
So when series one of Husbands was released a few weeks later in eleven two-minute chunks, I was delighted: It was far better than it had any reason to be and found a humourous but compelling middle ground. Subsequent series have been even better, opting for fewer but longer episodes, series two funded by a Kickstarter and series three picked up by CW Seed. And each series is graced with an array of geek guest stars (Amber Benson, Joss Whedon, Seth Green, Felicia Day, Jon Cryer, the list goes on…) that continually surprise and delight.
The premise, as they executed it, is derivative (“Straight people do this all the time. In fact, if we weren’t gay, this would be a hackneyed premise”) but actually quite inventive as well. In the flurry of interviews that creators Espenson and Bell did after the release, they continued to talk about Mad About You, but this comparison sells the online comedy short. Sure, both stories are about recent newlyweds who perhaps tied the knot a bit earlier, but Paul and Jamie never had to face the kind of scrutiny that Brady and Cheeks do nor did the validity of heterosexual marriage as a construct rest on their shoulders. Husbands may have a sense of humour about such things (“It’s a Google alert! It’s about us! …is that how you spell ‘travesty’?”) but it acknowledges the ways that these issues create strains that most of us straights can never really imagine.
Yet for all its courage in taking on some of these issues, it’s never heavy-handed or melodramatic. Instead, it’s whimsical, witty, and highly entertaining. This is due in large part to the special marriage behind the scenes: the creative mating of Espenson's talent for finding the emotional truth of a character with Bell's sensibility and insight into a gay experience that is ostensibly portrayed by Hollywood, but rarely understood. As a result, the writing turns even moments of tension into something wonderful: “I’m sorry, but as the patriarch of this relationship, I’m going to have to put my foot down…” “Patri-are-you-kidding-me?!?”
And the characters who deliver the lines are also the result of a delicate but very successful balancing act. Brady, the ballplayer, is tall, classically handsome, fairly traditional, and newly out of the closet—the straight in the relationship. Cheeks, on the other hand, is a self-professed “man with an exotic femininity in a world that regards the feminine as a sign of weakness”—the queer. But this is no Odd Couple. Hemeon’s Brady is not some kind of macho athlete. He’s a sweet guy struggling to make his new love and his he-man professional world gel. It’s not until we get to the third series where we meet his Mormon parents (played with mischievous glee by Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Hogan and Jericho’s Beth Grant) that we get insight on how he came to be the man he is. It’s well worth the wait.
Cheeks, likewise, only seems to belong in a certain box. Yes, he’s a raging queen. But he’s also, largely, the brains of the operation, someone who, because he’s been out his entire life, has had plenty of time to process his own emotions about his sexuality and the world’s response to it. And he doesn’t give a damn about that response. (Reading the “morality clause” in Brady’s contract) “You ‘promise not to shock the community or ridicule popular morals.’ Well, that’s my mission state, vebate.” Still, Cheeks is also in love and thus must find a way to balance his out-loud way of being with their needs as a couple. And in his own way, the flamboyant actor is every bit the stand-up guy his partner is…just better accessorized.
But like all good couples, they are far better together than either would be on his own, and this is largely due to the chemistry between Hemeon and Bell. The men they portray are not ideologues or clowns. They are men in love (the kissing in series three is, hands-down, some of the most passionate and emotive you’ll see anywhere—straight actors should take notes) and trying to make it work. And because we recognize, gay or straight, what love really looks like, the show’s appeal is universal. Or will be when the last bigot gives up or gives out.
And that universality is where Husbands really shines. Because it is about two men, Husbands can do something that Mad About You could never hope to do. It speaks to all marriages - even (and maybe especially) straight marriages - about the nature of marriage and how it works. When a man and woman marry, they have lots of examples in the popular media and their own lives to follow and clearly defined roles to slip into. And many of us do. Gay men and women, on the other hand, don’t have the same models, so they have to figure it out for themselves. But the simple truth is that those defined roles can be just as ill-fitting for straight people as they are for Brady and Cheeks. Every marriage, Husbands reminds us, is about the two people - two unique, flawed, and wonderful people - in it and finding a way to be themselves, both as those individuals and as a couple.
“I don’t want you to be anyone other than yourself…which is all I’ve ever wanted for you…or for me…for everybody.”
We should all be so lucky to find ourselves in such a marriage.
Look out for our interview with Husbands creators Jane Espenson and Brad Bell, later this week.