'Common Law' And TV's Tired 'We're Not Gay' Cliche

It might have been funny, a long time ago, for two straight men to constantly fend off the suggestion that they are gay. Not anymore.
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There are a lot of reasons to ding "Common Law" (10 p.m. ET on Friday on USA). This isn't the main reason to give the show a hard time (I'll get to that in a bit), but it deploys so many predictable cop moments that I'm surprised the TV police didn't pull this show over for exceeding the legal cliche limit.

"Common Law" takes the ever-popular Cop Who Is Out of Line cliche and adds another Cop Who Is Slightly Out Of Line in a Different Way From the First Cop, just for grins. Travis Marks (Michael Ealy) and Wes Mitchell (Warren Kole) are not only Mismatched Cop Buddies -- one is a ladies' man who breaks the rules, while the other is a by-the-book rule-follower -- they're Two Cops Who Drive the Boss Crazy! Hence the inevitable sentence uttered by their inevitably grizzled superior: "Why do my two best detectives have to be the biggest pains in my ass?"

Even if, on some level, I had expected that cliche (or something like it), being hit between the eyes with the blunt instrument of that line was so much less enjoyable than it sounds.

But I'm not here to hate on formulas: They exist for a reason and they can be a whole lot of fun, dressed up and executed in creative or at least, energetic ways. I can name at least half a dozen spy dramas in the last decade or so that I really like (one of them is even on USA), and each plays around with the same tropes and idioms, yet manages to have its own personality and profile. They show it's possible to take old tools from one particular toolbox and build something serviceable and even enjoyable with them.

But "Common Law," like "Fairly Legal" before it, isn't just formulaic -- it's lazy. There's a difference, and USA apparently isn't always able to spot it. The bickering between the "Common Law" cop partners gets old fast, neither of the leads has much charisma, the production values are lackluster and almost everything about the script is mundane and predictable. And at one point, Ealy's character does something so dumb and reckless -- he fires his weapon repeatedly into an object that bothers him -- that I intensely disliked him from that moment onward (nor did I think much of his job skills).

But the real reason I want to take this show to task is because it is Exhibit A of a TV trend I'm officially tired of. It might have been funny, a long time ago, for two straight men to constantly fend off the suggestion that they are gay (though perhaps for GLBTQ people, these kinds of jokes were never all that funny). But there are a few reasons I've grown very tired of this particular trope (which also occurs a little too frequently for my taste on the otherwise good "Sherlock").

First, it's a cliche that is past its sell-by date, and no matter the nature of cliches, they must be identified and denied at every turn.

Secondly, especially given the events of this week, it's past time to stop treating gay, lesbian and trans characters as The Other. When "Seinfeld" introduced the phrase "not that there's anything wrong with that" in connection to the possibility of a character being gay, GLBTQ characters were a rarity on TV and thus that joke may have served as a sort of crude but useful enlightening tool.

Now that kind of joke -- "We're close friends, but we're not gay!" -- feels like a distancing technique, something that draws attention to gays and lesbians as something out of the norm. That feels wrong for a lot of reasons.

And honestly, who cares? In this day and age, are you telling me that two men who are best friends would constantly have to deal with the assumption that they're gay? I just find the whole idea fairly preposterous. Who doesn't know straight men who hang out all the time without anyone thinking about or guessing about their sexuality? How is drawing attention to not-gayness, at this point, anything but a representation of lingering shreds of mild but unmistakable gay panic?

"Common Law," however, attempts to get a great deal of mileage out of the concept that Wes and Travis are definitely not a couple: They are in couples therapy and bicker like the kind of cliched married couple you see on mediocre sitcoms. People constantly treat them like a couple and their not-gay status is a running "joke" throughout the premiere. I only wish that Sonya Walger of "Lost," who plays their couples' therapist, wasn't tied to this moribund concept; she deserves better. More to the point, the show makes nonsexual male intimacy seem weird or odd, which it isn't -- not unless you're among a stubbornly unenlightened subset of TV writers, that is.

I'm not going to go on, because the tired "Common Law" isn't worth further scrutiny, but I want to take this moment to introduce the "We're friends, but we're not gay" schtick to the Cliche Hall of Fame. Along with the line "That went well!" after a disastrous encounter; "I think I just threw up a little in my mouth"; "Detective, you're too close to this case"; "Did I just say that out loud?"; "She's right behind me, isn't she,"it just needs to go away.

These wheezy old veterans have done their time and may have even even served us adequately, a long, long time ago. Now it's time to say goodbye.

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