This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, since it was very topical, and by the time the reprint rights had reverted to me the show was no longer on the air. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.
I’ve recently gotten sucked into “Caprica,” the prequel series to “Battlestar Galactica” airing on the SyFy Channel. (Yes, this is about sex — hear me out.) I hadn’t planned to put yet another hour-long drama on my TV schedule, and Loki knows I don’t have time for it; but I watched fifteen minutes of the pilot when I was channel surfing, and I got hooked. I’m such a slut. Give me a complex, thoughtful, nuanced exploration of consciousness and selfhood, and I’m anybody’s.
And the show has had some surprising plot developments in the sexual arena — developments that were all the more surprising for how unceremoniously they were introduced.
A quick precis, for those who aren’t familiar: The weekly science fiction TV series, “Caprica,” takes place in a world that’s eerily parallel to Earth. But the world has some interesting differences from ours, and at the time this story takes place, they’re a few years/ decades ahead of us. Technologically, and socially.
And “socially” is where the sex comes in. (Caution: Spoiler alert. Multiple spoilers. Suck it up.) There’s a major gay character in “Caprica,” and there’s a major polyamorous character. And the way these characters and their sexualities get woven into the story shows a huge leap forward in the way our culture has started to view alternative sexualities… and an enormous leap forward in how we view our sexual future.
Let’s start with the gay character.
There’s an equivalent of the Mafia in “Caprica,” a criminal organization called the Ha’la’tha. One of the story’s major characters, Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), is a renowned defense attorney with deep connections to the Mob, and his brother, Sam Adama (Sasha Roiz), is one of the Mob’s enforcers.
And a few episodes into the show, we learn that Sam is gay.
But this development isn’t presented as a shocker. It isn’t presented as The Big Gay Revelation. Here’s how we find out: Sam’s young nephew William (Sina Najafi) is at dinner with Sam and his husband, Larry (Julius Chapple), and he’s asking them why they never had kids. That’s it. That’s the Big Gay Moment. It isn’t even remotely a big effing deal. It’s just the moment in the story when we find out more about Sam Adama and his home life… and Sam’s home life includes his husband, Larry.
And as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Larry is completely accepted as Sam’s husband, by Sam’s brother as well as his nephew — and, as far as I can tell, by everyone else in the story. When Joseph is desperately trying to find Sam, he calls Larry — just like you’d call anyone’s husband or wife if you were desperately trying to reach them. Joseph is freaked out that he can’t reach his brother… but his attitude towards Larry, and the fact of his marriage with his brother, is entirely nonchalant. And as of this writing, there’s nothing in the story to indicate that Sam is in the closet, or that his Mob colleagues have any issues at all with his gayness.
This would be surprising enough for any character on a mainstream TV series. (If the SyFy channel counts as “mainstream,” that is.) Even when a TV series is gay positive, it almost always has to make the gayness a major plot point or the central defining feature of the gay character in question. A gay character in mainstream TV is almost always The Gay Character.
But given the character of Sam Adama, this fact is downright flabbergasting. Sam is a freaking Mafia enforcer. He throws trash cans through store windows, and kidnaps the wives of industry leaders, and murders politicians by knifing them to death in their sleep. The guy wears wife-beaters, for heaven’s sake. He’s about as far from a gay stereotype as you can get. You might expect to see a gay TV character who’s a graphic designer or a struggling actor/ waiter, or even a doctor or a lawyer. But a gay character who’s a macho thug? Entrenched in a criminal organization based on macho thuggery?
This, to me, speaks of the normalization of homosexuality… more than a hundred episodes of “Will and Grace.” It speaks of a world that recognizes the simple fact that anybody can be gay. It speaks of a world that recognizes that gayness is only one part of a gay person’s life… and often not the most interesting part. And it speaks of a world that recognizes the fact of gayness as a simple fact of human life.
So that’s the gayness. Now let’s move on to the group marriage. There’s another interesting major character in “Caprica”: Clarice Willow (Polly Walker), the headmistress of an exclusive private high school, the Athena Academy. (Caprican society is largely polytheistic, believing in a version of the old Greek gods.) And, as it turns out a few episodes into the show, she’s a member of a group marriage.
Now, Clarice’s group marriage isn’t treated quite as casually as Sam’s marriage to Larry. It’s introduced with a bit of… not fanfare exactly, but surprise. One of Clarice’s students, Lacy Rand (Magda Apanowicz), comes to her house for a visit — and discovers that she lives with multiple husbands, and multiple wives. And Lacy has a little frisson of nervous excitement when she realizes this. “I knew a few kids from group marriages — it’s cool,” she says… in a voice indicating that she actually doesn’t actually know that much about group marriage, and thinks it’s “cool” in the sense of “edgy and slightly outre.”
But at no point is there any implication that Clarice could get into trouble for bringing her student to her group marriage home. Or indeed, for being in a group marriage in the first place. There’s no indication that she’s endangering her job — her job, I’ll remind you, as the head of a high school, attended by underaged teenagers and everything — by being in a group marriage, and inviting one of her students home to visit it.
It’s more than a little comparable to what being gay is like now. Here on Earth, I mean. Being gay is still a little bit shocking (for some people), still a conversation piece (more so in some parts of the country and the world than others). But, at least with the more politically moderate people and places, it’s entirely legal, more or less accepted, only mildly surprising, and not something that will get you drummed out of town or fired from your job for corrupting the morals of the children.
And like Sam Adama’s gayness, Clarice Willow’s group marriage isn’t presented as the most interesting or important aspect of her character. It’s played a little more for curiosity and titillation than Sam’s marriage with Larry; especially in the scene with four people all in bed together (switching partners at an unspoken signal — this seems to be an “everyone’s on a schedule of who sleeps with whom” version of group marriage, not free-form polyamory), and in the scenes when it seems like Clarice might be trying to draw Lacy into the arrangement by introducing her to one of her younger, dishier husbands. But the group marriage is presented as a familiar arrangement in this society, if a somewhat unusual one. And it’s presented as an essentially unthreatening arrangement. The fact that Clarice turns out to be a monotheist — now, that’s a serious threat to Caprican society. (Especially from what we know from “Battlestar Galactica” about how this story turns out.) The fact that she has multiple husbands and wives — that’s seen as relatively normal.
And all of this is a huge departure for mainstream TV dramas. Even in “Big Love,” the most famous current TV show featuring multiple relationships (it’s the show about Mormon polygamy), the fact of the characters’ polygamy is the central defining feature of their lives, and the lynchpin on which the entire storyline turns. I’m hard-pressed to think of another TV program aside from “Caprica” in which multiple relationships are seen as a standard, if somewhat edgy, form of romantic interaction that a stable society could incorporate… and in which same-sex relationships are seen as so normal as to need no further comment.
Now. It could be argued that these two characters still perpetuate stereotypes about unconventional sexuality… since neither of them is exactly a moral paragon. Sam Adama is, after all, a Mafia enforcer, a criminal who threatens/ beats up/ murders people for money. And Clarice Willow turns out to be involved in an extremist monotheistic terrorist organization. (In “Caprica,” again, the society is mostly polytheistic… and monotheists are looked upon as dangerous, radical religious fanatics with an inflexible morality and a close-minded hatred of anyone with different beliefs. Much the way Islam is seen in much of the Western world.) It could be argued that these characters perpetuate the stereotype of sexual minorities as amoral: self-centered pursuers of their own desires, with no concern for decency or social stability.
But… well, I have two Buts here. One is that in “Caprica,” pretty much all the characters are morally ambiguous. This is a complex, thoughtful, nuanced story — morally as well as in other ways — and it doesn’t trade in obvious villains and heroes. Sam Adama and Clarice Willow are morally troubling characters… but so are Daniel Graystone, and Joseph Adama, and Lacy, and Zoe, and Amanda, and pretty much every single character in the show. Sam and Clarice are fucked-up people doing terrible things for noble reasons, or what they see as noble reasons… and in this story, that makes them fit right in.
My other “But” is this: Yes, Sam, and Clarice are morally troubling characters. But there’s no implication that their sexual lives are the cause of their moral shakiness. What makes Clarice bad is her religious fanaticism, not her unconventional marital arrangement; and at this point in the story, it’s not even clear whether her husbands or wives are even aware of her involvement in religious extremism. And Sam Adama’s marriage to Larry is one of the best things about him: a humanizing element, giving his character motivation and depth. Their ethics are deeply problematic; their sexuality is fine.
It’s wonderful to see. And it’s especially wonderful to see in a science fiction show. “Caprica” is technically set in the distant past; but it’s clearly providing an “alternate reality” version of humanity’s future. I so want science fiction to be more visionary about sexuality than conventional fiction… and all too often, it so is not. (The various iterations of “Star Trek,” for instance, were so far behind the curve on gayness, it was embarrassing.) It’s a nice sign of how far we’ve come sexually that a regular TV series — and a critically acclaimed one at that — could be this imaginative and forward- thinking about sexuality, and still get on the air. And it’s comforting to think that “Caprica’s” vision of a sexual culture might someday be ours.
If the Cylons don’t get us, that is.