The Strange Forgotten History of TV’s First Gay Sitcom
This month marks the birthday of a strange, groundbreaking yet mostly-forgotten sitcom: Brothers, the first TV show to have a gay lead character. It premiered in July of 1984.
Sure, there had been gays on TV before: most notably, Jody on the show Soap, played by Billy Crystal. He was a remarkable character, seen dating and having relationships and even winning custody of his child. But he wasn’t a main focus on the show to the extent that the star of Brothers was. There were also gay episodes of shows like Maude, on which characters went to a gay bar — but that was a one-off. More than a decade before Will and Grace, Brothers was television’s first gay sitcom.
It probably couldn’t have happened if not for the success of Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Those two hits propelled writer David Lloyd to fame (he would also soon begin work on a new show called Cheers) and he was excited to tackle such a revolutionary concept in the early ’70s.
The concept was simple enough: a trio of brothers undergoes funny trials and tribulations when one of them comes out as gay as an adult. It was set in Philadelphia, and each episode followed youngest-brother Cliff, who was navigating his newfound place in the gay community, as well as his very heterosexual older brothers.
A particular highlight of the show was the character Donald, a very flamboyant friend. Donald was happy and successful and sexually active, another groundbreaking sight for LGBT characters on television at the time. Even on Will and Grace, many years later, it would take a long time before Will was ready to date.
Brothers nearly made it to NBC. In 1983, the network looked at a pilot episode of Brothers, and reportedly enjoyed it — but they were terrified of how viewers would take the open portrayal of homosexuality. The show got an even harsher response from ABC, which rejected it instantly after NBC eventually passed.
That’s when Showtime came to the rescue. Just a few months earlier, Showtime had made history as the first cable network to revive a cancelled network show (the show was The Paper Chase, which nobody remembers today). Executives at Showtime liked that Brothers was daring, and fit with their mission — basically in the same way that Netflix and Amazon take chances on interesting diverse programming today.
Showtime ordered 26 episodes, and after the first season was a success, they ordered 50 more. They also announced they’d move the show into immediate syndication, which meant that more people than ever would see it.
The first two seasons of the show were heavily gay, with themes opening exploring the relationships between the LGBT and straight community. As it moved into season three, however, the show dropped its focus on the characters’ homosexuality, and it simply became a story of friends and family.
There were a number of “very important episodes” of the series — early on, a character reveals that they have AIDS. Death, body image, and a brush with the law were also addressed on the show.
These days, the show Brothers is almost completely forgotten, since it was on a cable network and unpredictably scheduled in syndication. The show also doesn’t age very well, and is clearly of its time. But for those who remember it, the first gay sitcom was an unforgettable, unbelievable television landmark.