Love, Sidney: Dusting Off A Skeleton From The Ghostly TV ClosetBy Shawn Baker / Saturday, October 2nd, 2010
The Valley of Lost TV Series.
As a wayward demographic, it’s a place I visit often, a mist-shrouded swale where the shades of TV series past — the misbegottenly terrible, the cheesily dated, and the brilliantly canceled who never got their just due — wander in eternal limbo.
DVD has been a veritable treasure trove that’s been the path of deliverance for some; you’re apt to find, say, a crypto-sleuthing Night Stalker, a studying-abroad She-Wolf of London, and an antioxidant-powered Swamp Thing channeled from the Spirit World via my Plasma, but what about the lost souls remembered by only a select few? Who will help them go into the light?
Who the hell knew that Lost had an antecedent in not only the kiddie mindbender Land of The Lost, but also in The New People, a 1969 curio involving an airplane full of multiculti castaways marooned on a mysterious isle complete with government experiments and a lost city? I actually whispered “Jinkies!” when I learned that TV’s first gay wedding took place on a fossilized series called Sirota’s Court way back in ’76. Isn’t 1965′s Hank — centering on the collegiate adventures of an impoverished chameleon who takes menial jobs on campus so that he can assume absent students’ identities in order to get a free education — just begging to be remade as Community‘s ideal companion show? And can you really say your life is complete until you’ve seen the domestic hilarity of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun shacking up in Heil Honey, I’m Home!?
While the name Sidney Shorr may not set off your nostalgic Gaydar at first blush, this largely-forgotten confirmed bachelor centerpiece of the early ’80s sitcom Love, Sidney still resonates as a floorboard-creaking skeleton in the cobwebbed confines of the Primetime TV closet.
The cult actor Vincent Schiavelli can lay claim to essaying the first openly gay series regular in The Corner Bar circa 1972, while the 1975 Norman Lear sitcom Hot L Baltimore — a rare failure for the super producer — actually opened with a warning because its motley cast of main characters included hookers, illegal immigrants, and a gay couple. One-off gay plots were turning up on All In The Family, Maude, and M*A*S*H as well thanks to the turbulent politics of the day.
Soap precariously broke new ground with Billy Crystal‘s gay, gender dysphoric scion of the Tate-Campbell family in the late ’70s, but 1981′s Love, Sidney stuck its neck out in an attempt to push a gay character front and center of the situation family sitcom. Attempt being the keyword. As far as television depictions went, gays were at best canny scene-stealers and at worst minor plot upsets as far as episodic TV was concerned. Fully-fleshed gay characters were a long way off in the last days of disco when Love, Sidney hit small screens, and an out-and-about gay Jewish urbanite was a tall order given the time period.
The series actually found its genesis in a 1980 telefilm called Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend, a title which speaks volumes years down the line. Whenever I hear that gays are perfect friend fodder for insecure or cosmopolitan girls, I think of the scene in The Tenth Victim wherein Ursula Andress spots a gaggle of gays in an airport and exclaims “Oh! — They’re such ideal friends for a girl!” I can’t say how new the development is, but certainly Sex & The City and Will & Grace have put copious effort into canonizing this conceit. I’m neither sassy, nor trendy, nor female-identified, so I don’t go for this scene at all, but it sure seems like a lot of guys are coming perilously close to becoming must-have lifestyle accoutrements for materialistic women — the human variation on a miniature dog that can be toted around in a purse.
Such is the narrative premise for Sidney Shorr: the gay best friend who can serve as a mother substitute for a female friend who can secure her kid with him in order to jet off to California to find herself and land a hubby. TV movies are great venues for handling topical subject matter like this, but a move to depict the life of a gay main character on a weekly basis was a dicier prospect. Ultimately, just how gay Tony Randall — a dandy actor who had a long career playing ambiguously-oriented characters — as Sidney comes across is contingent upon the eye of the beholder. All the Crypto-Gay signifiers that arise when you have a fifty-something confirmed bachelor taking the place of an absentee father for his lady friend are there, but that one word never rears its head.
By the time the series proper aired a year later, Mom Laurie (now played by Swoosie Kurtz, replacing Lorna Patterson from the telepic) is back in the picture and starring in a daytime soap while living with Sid and daughter Patti (now five) in the Big Apple, NBC endeavoring to broach the obvious implications of such an Odder Couple arrangement. Blended/adoptive families forming under unfortunate circumstances (usually the death of a parent) were TV protocol during the ’80s. This particular story arc is ahead of the curve on becoming an ethnic clichÃ© that I suspect is held as a given by sectors of straight culture. Every gay guy just must have a trusty gal pal who he can make a pact with to somebody knock up when he decides to have a family, thus making the necessity for the partner and adoption rights we’re now vying for to be soooo needlessly melodramatic. You know us Gays — everything’s gotta be a performance.
Without a foregrounded ensemble to camouflage him, Sid’s orientation was sidestepped yet still liminal. He had an art career (Ding!), plenty of Mommy-related angst (Yoink!), a female neighbor whose advances he found himself dodging (a zany plot device lifted from the La Cage Aux Folles comedies), and a dead love-of-a-lifetime (“Pa-Pow!”) phantasmically represented by a man’s photograph.
I try to imagine what it must’ve been like to see Sidney as it was filmed in pre-gentrification, pre-Giuliani, pre-Terror Town New York. This was a time when sitcoms — not just soaps and the Law & Order franchise — were still being lensed in the city. Glee is really just dramarama kid fluff, but what a luxury to be able to have a sugary piece of gay TV candy in a decade when that can take place. Sidney reportedly received its most favorable ratings and reviews in the Big Apple, yet even Janet Maslin‘s October 28th, 1981 New York Times review amazingly doesn’t mention the G word. Sidney is instead simply classified as “a fussy, lonely man,” and despite the halfhearted encoding, it’s clear that gay audiences were hip to the game.
Moral Media Watchdog groups were banes of the writing staff early on (the fact that Sidney encouraged Laurie not to terminate her pregnancy seemed strangely immaterial), but even though their furor neutered the character for a time, it was ultimately the inability for Sidney to translate out of its big city environs that signaled its premature end. Storylines took a darker and more somber turn the second year — Sidney talks an acquaintance out of a suicide attempt in one of the series’s remaining episodes, though he seems to be teetering on that same edge himself — and by 1983 the curtain came down for good.
It’s hard not to read Randall’s take on the character as familiar; I imagine there were all manner of Sidneys in every big city at the time, men not quite sure of their roles in Post-Stonewall America, not accustomed to being known for what they were. How many men are out there today who gave up on their walk-through-the-part marriages and have kids still in their lives? Having grown up post-AIDS, the disease has committed a fearful phenomenon of Nensha for me. I have trouble picturing a time when it wasn’t present, and its pall seems to hang over movies and books (Midnight Cowboy, The Boys In The Band, Cruising) that predate it, as if its long shadow slipped unnoticed under the door first. The first eight cases of a form of hyper-aggressive and terrifying Kaposi’s sarcoma striking young gay men were just beginning to be detected in ’81 as Sidney was airing, and so its titular protagonist’s foibles — his disorientation in a time of accelerated upheavals, his need for a hermetically closed-off celibate universe, his linkage of love with death and loss — today ring with a weird sort of foreknowledge, as if Sidney were a Cassandra plagued by a dread presage he couldn’t comprehend until it was too late.
Today, Love, Sidney is a virtually forgotten blip in the television continuum. Only those present for its original run are likely to be able to vaguely place it — many will be thrown by assertions that the lead character even was gay, while others only recall him with contempt — and it garners little if any salient mention on the Net. Still, like a Llorona wailing in the night or a phantom hitchhiker waiting by the side of the road, Sidney remains just extant enough to be strangely haunting — a bellwether moment frozen in time, disembodied between eras, and still carrying the earthly baggage of unfinished business and mortal regret.
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