In season one, ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” refreshingly jolted America with steamy sex scenes between men -- the kind that had not been seen before on network television -- and established itself as another groundbreaking Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”) production.
Season two took things even further regarding queer representation, featuring a great transgender storyline which highlighted injustice in the criminal justice system, in which a trans actress, Alexandra Billings, portrays the trans woman at the center of the plot line; a character who learns he’s HIV-positive and faces the challenges that accompanied that revelation; gay men navigating the use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to prevent HIV infection; and a stunning sexual relationship from the past between the show’s lead character, law professor Annalise Keating, portrayed by Emmy Award-winning Viola Davis, and another woman — though Keating had been married to a man from the beginning of the series and continues to have a torrid affair with a local musclebound male cop.
With the season two finale upon us tonight, the show’s creator and executive producer, Peter Nowalk, who’s worked on both “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” spoke with me on SiriusXM Progress about how, as a gay man, he’s had a keen awareness about the importance of visibility. Yet at the same time, at least regarding the gay sex scenes, he really didn’t have a clue that he was doing anything so pathbreaking.
“I think that seeing yourself, and especially if you're a young person, seeing what can be possible for life, is really validating and very reassuring, and can take away some of the loneliness you feel, as a kid especially,” he said. “So, for me, I've written on many TV shows where we'd write tons of characters having sex in many different ways. And that includes gay characters. So I was surprised by how much attention it did get.”
“I saw ‘Queer as Folk,’ the British version,” he continued. “That was made in the year 2000, and those sex scenes were incredibly graphic and hot. So this is, like, nearly 15 years later… And I guess that's how much it shows I live in a bubble: 'What do you mean it's a big deal? There's a lot of gay characters on TV now.' But I guess not on network TV, shown the way it was shown [in ‘How to Get Away with Murder’]. I was naive. I did not realize how that impacts people that much. I thought it was a little bit of the turn of the dial. It was a little bit more graphic than maybe people had seen. But again, to me it was just like, this is normal. And that's my goal: To write TV that shows lots of different people doing lots of different things.”
What was more “intentional,” and something which he knew would break stereotypes, Nowalk said, is the storyline in which a recurring character, Oliver Hampton (played by Conrad Ricamora), tests positive for HIV. Spurned by his troubled boyfriend, Oliver was ostensibly monogamous, while his partner, law student Connor Walsh, portrayed by Jack Falahee (who's talked all about his role as a "man whore"), was the one having all that hot sex with many men in season one.
Nowalk said he wanted to smash the notion “that someone who's HIV-positive is more sexually active than someone who's not.”
“I think it only takes one mistake to become positive,” he explained. “So that was something that felt real to me. And it also felt just like a good turn for the character. It shocked me that there were't more HIV-positive characters on TV, especially with how far we've come with treatment and medication. I will say, I felt like I got a lot of criticism for that storyline from certain members of the gay community. They felt like it felt cliche to have a gay character end up positive. But for me it also just felt real, and I felt like, 'If it's such a cliche, why isn't on TV more?' How could something be a cliche when there's literally no one on TV who's a gay man who's positive right now?”
After Oliver and Connor got back together, Nowalk said he wrote in a storyline showing Connor doing what Nowalk described as “the first thing you would do if you’re Connor”: He went on PrEP.
“There are many people using PrEP in the world,” he explained. “Certainly in my bubble, a gay man in Los Angeles. And [Oliver and Connor] did it very responsibly. They waited even longer than you're supposed to, to make the PrEP take effect, before they had sex for the first time. They made it sexy, waiting those days before they could have sex. Again, it just feels like a very normal part of my community, to be on PrEP, to be able to stay with your partner who’s positive. I mean that's such a gift that people have that reassurance now. I get that it's controversial and all. But it's not for these characters.”
Nowalk noted that he also got some pushback from bisexual fans of the show, after it was revealed that Davis’s character, Annalise, had a deep emotional and sexual relationship with a woman in the past— and with whom she rekindles the relationship briefly — though she’s been intimately involved with men throughout the series.
“I've been getting a lot of very thoughtful tweets about this, from the bisexual community, wondering if we're ever going to label Annalise as bisexual, or have her say it, or have someone else say it,“ he noted. “And I totally get why that's important to happen. But I'm just writing from that character's point of view. And if Annalise is going to describe herself as anything, it's sexual. I think she's about what's in front of her. And I definitely think she knows she's a very sexual person and that just depends on the moment. She's looking for connection. She's very lonely… I just want our fans to know, it’s not because I want to disavow the bisexual community or not give them visibility. I just think Annalise has a very specific way that she lives her life and I don’t think it’s through labels.”
The idea for that storyline actually came to Nowalk while he and Davis were at the annual GLAAD Awards in Los Angeles last year during the last hiatus of the show. His anecdote reveals how much the force that is Viola Davis drives the show.
“I was like, ‘I have this idea, that Annalise had this relationship, had fallen in love with a woman,’” he recalled. “And Viola's instant reaction was just to get a big smile on her face. She saw the potential in that and she believed it for the character. Viola's the first person I go to when I have an idea, to see if she believes it. If she doesn't believe it, then I know that something's wrong about it. It's just been so fun to have an actor who's willing to dive into the complicated nature of people.”