Imagine there's a cop show. Imagine it's on network television. Imagine that, although it's never been the biggest ratings-grabber, it's acclaimed critically, having won several Emmys. Naturally, the show has a male lead who is attractive, complex and sympathetic. Now imagine that he's also openly bisexual.
Given the current state of network television it sounds too good to be true, right? Except it already happened. On 2 January 1998, NBC aired an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street titled ‘Closet Cases' during which Baltimore-based thirtysomething detective Tim Bayliss (played by Kyle Secor) acknowledged his attraction to men. In the episode, Bayliss accepted a date from a gay man, played by guest star Peter Gallagher. In the following episode, Homicide's writers re-established Bayliss's interest in women, while making it clear that he was not closing the door on the possibility of dating men.
Detective Timothy Bayliss thereby became the first – and, as of now, the only bisexual male lead on an American network television show. During the rest of the sixth season – in which the ‘Closet Cases' episode occurred – the seventh season, and the made-for-TV movie that concluded the show, Bayliss's bisexuality or ‘bi-curiousness' continued to be addressed.
Homicide is today released for the first time as a complete series DVD set. The show ran from 1993 to 1999, with the movie coda Homicide: Life Everlasting shown in 2000. Co-executive producer Tom Fontana would go on to create the gritty HBO prison drama Oz, a show that would depict one of television's great male/male relationships between Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen) and Chris Keller ( Chris topher Meloni).
Like Oz, Homicide dealt with a predominantly male environment – and as such had a particular emphasis on relationships and feelings between men: hatred, rivalry, collusion, friendship, companionship, love, lust.
One of the reasons why Bayliss's storyline is interesting for a queer audience, even before his coming out, is because of what can be seen as his ambiguous feelings for his arrogant, prickly detective partner, Frank Pembleton (played by Andre Braugher).
The show had a habit, maintained all the way through the series, of referring to work partner relationships as if they were romantic relationships. In the very first episode, the partner-shy Pembleton tells Giardello, the unit's Shift Commander, that he has turned “yenta”, or matchmaker, by trying to make Pembleton work in pairs. Later in the season, Detective Lewis finds Pembleton and Bayliss bickering, and tells them that “Y'all two got a co-dependent relationship, you need to work on that.” A Season 3 episode contains the following exchange:
Bayliss: So, you're just gonna walk out on me?
Pembleton: I didn't walk out on you Tim. We're not engaged; so don't act like I left you at the altar.
In a recent interview with AfterElton.com, Kyle Secor referred to Pembleton and Bayliss's “very kind of ‘old married couple' relationship”, describing them jokingly as “the deeply involved couple who didn't have sex anymore”. Of the show's ambiguous dialogue, he says that:
“It's the writers, and Tom Fontana. He can split that dialogue both ways. Andre and I had many talks about it. And in a lot of the relationships in the show you see that, where the partners are very intimate with each other. They generally care a great deal about each other, and about their personal lives, and it feels like, you know, they know each other better than potentially their husbands or wives might know them, or boyfriends or girlfriends. So it was very intimate, what we were all going through.”
Even pre-coming out, Bayliss's storyline had been phrased in terms of self-discovery, and particularly sexual self-discovery.
An early episode delved into his discomfort in dealing with an S&M murder, suggesting that it was perhaps partly due to his own repression. Then he winds up sleeping with a woman in a coffin. A Season 3 episode seems to have him confessing that he had some homosexual experiences as a young man. On a darker note, Season 5 also saw him acknowledging and confronting the sexual abuse he had suffered from his uncle as a child.
Secor, who is straight, reflects on the gradual evolution of his character, leading up to the bisexuality storyline: “It progressed from the end of the second season, I walk into a strip bar wearing a black leather jacket. And Tom Fontana says they always wanted that to point towards something, but they didn't know when they were going to actually start layering some of that stuff in. And they didn't know what would be layered in, or how it would turn out, which I thought was sort of the brilliance of the whole thing.
“And it was great – the writers had their ideas, and they would listen to some of my ideas, as the seasons went along. Everyone was interested in exploring different avenues. And [eventually] it just seemed like it was a natural thing for this guy to… to be wanting to walk in all sides of the neighborhood, so to speak.” He laughs.
Secor says he thinks that Bayliss was attracted to men before the ‘Closet Cases' episode: “I think that he had had fantasies, but he'd never acted on it before. I mean I really think that with the Peter Gallagher character, that was the first time. [Being attracted to men was] something he had been aware of… you know, it could be in the corner of his eye, looking over, seeing someone, and then just going on and doing his business, but never… But stuff with women didn't work either. And, you know, in a sense, [he was] almost, like – ‘There's gotta be something else. There's gotta be something else. Oh, men understand me much better than women. Let's see if this [could work].'”
The introduction of the bisexuality storyline meant that Secor had to think about the attitudes Bayliss had displayed towards homosexuality up till then. Reflecting on his character's pre-Season 6 discomfort with the subject, he says: “There's a great quote about ‘What you resist, persists'… something like that.” He laughs. “If I look back at some of the bad guys we caught that in any way had any kind of a flavor to them that wasn't strict heterosexual, it made Bayliss very uncomfortable.
“And even before we finally said ‘Hey, [the bisexuality storyline] is the way we're gonna go with this', I remember thinking ‘Well that just makes it much more interesting.' Because it means that Bayliss is uncomfortable in his own skin. It sort of fell into place for where we took him.”
The ‘Closet Cases' episode centers on Bayliss and Pembleton investigating the murder of a gay man in a suspected hate crime. Peter Gallagher's character, Chris Rawls, an openly gay restaurateur, is aiding them in the investigation. There are several mentions of the tensions existing between the gay community and the police. Another running thread throughout the episode is the potential invisibility of sexual identity – can you know whether someone else is gay?
Asking early on for indications that the murdered man was homosexual, Bayliss is told by the medical examiner: “I don't think they have a test for that, Bayliss.” Referring to the recent mugging of a gay man, and trying to decide whether the crimes might have been related, Detective Munch says “I don't think the mugger knew that [his victim was gay].” This can be seen as an underlying message to the audience. They may not know certain characters – such as Bayliss – as well as they think they know them.
Gallagher's character is polite, caring, thoughtful, and – since he is played by Peter Gallagher – attractive. He flirts gently with Bayliss, who appears taken aback but not displeased. By the end of the episode, Bayliss is accepting a dinner-date with him – despite the surprise and reservations of his partner Pembleton. The date itself is not shown onscreen however. And although a reference is made later in the season that suggests Bayliss and Rawls may have continued seeing each other, Gallagher does not appear in future episodes.
‘Closet Cases' was shown in January 1998, eight months after Ellen's big coming out episode on her sitcom (with all its resulting controversy). The show Ellen would go on to be cancelled in July of that year while Will & Grace premiered in September. Network television was willing, gingerly, to deal with gay characters. But there was an awareness of the backlash that could result from going too far, and particularly from showing actual gay relationships.
Secor recalls his surprise that the date was not shown: “I thought, well, Peter and I, or some other guy, we're gonna end up kissing, and that's gonna be really… you know, kind of interesting for me as an actor, and… where would they go with that… and that wasn't written. So I'm not sure if that was the network, or if it was some of the writers' own discomfort. Or it could have been just [an artistic decision, or due to time constraints]. You know, sometimes they don't show the actual bullet hitting the person.”
If the burgeoning attraction between Bayliss and Rawls is kept strictly at the PG level, a more sexually charged scene comes when Bayliss and Pembleton interrogate Peter Fields. Played by Brian Van Holt, Fields is a handsome, sexually ambiguous young hustler suspected of having committed a murder.
Regular viewers of Homicide will know that the detectives are used to saying whatever they have to in the interrogation room in order to get a confession. In this case, however, what Fields is goading Bayliss to admit is that he is attracted to him – the first time that Bayliss would ever have made such an admission. Not only are the detective/suspect roles reversed, but there is an ambiguity for the audience who may not realize at first that Bayliss actually means what he is saying.
Secor says: “I recall when we were doing that [scene] what occurred to me was that Bayliss knows that he's got to say that [he's attracted to Fields] in order to get the confession. And he also knows that he's attracted to him. And he can't let on to that, but he can let on in a fake way that he's attracted to him.” He laughs. “It's the beauty of the writing on that show that they just loaded [that scene] up with complex [layers].
“Peter Fields was a great-looking guy, and very cocky. And it was like he was pulling the confession out of Bayliss. [Brian Van Holt] was great in that role.”
Post-coming out, Bayliss provided a rare example of a character presented in a sustained way as bisexual. Where characters on television have had bisexual moments, it has tended to be presented as a state of transition. They may be about to come out as gay, thereby effectively invalidating previous heterosexual relationships (as with Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Jack on Dawson's Creek). Or, they may be an otherwise-straight (and usually female) regular character, who will have a one-episode gay fling which will never be mentioned again.
Bayliss, however, continued until the end of the show to be presented as dating, and open to, both genders. He had a couple of conversations where he delved into his feelings for men and women, and his attempts to balance the two. The show even took on the skepticism that exists about male bisexuality, with a couple of characters assuming that Bayliss was gay, since he was attracted to men. Homicide was unusual in exploring a specifically bisexual, as opposed to a gay male identity.
Secor says that they weren't trying or claiming to represent everyone, however:
“[We weren't] saying ‘We're going to show you exactly what a gay character is, or exactly what a bisexual character is.' We were just basically saying, ‘This is this particular character, and this is his particular way of dealing with life, and dealing with his sexuality. And he goes back and forth between men and women, based upon what his needs are, psychologically [and] physically, at the time. And could there be a character who does this rather easily?'
“I've talked to a number of people: gay, straight, bi, men, women. And there's similarities to a lot of them, but everyone is individual, so everyone goes off and does their… you know, it all happens in a different way. And that's why I thought: we can just make this up. We don't have to stick to any… Because there isn't, there was no template for a bisexual lead character on a detective series. So we could make it up how he goes back and forth, and we could make it up that he has these conversations – it seems like he's coming closer to what his nature is, and then he doesn't know. And people will buy it, because you're going to always… You're gonna always strike on someone's story.”
Bayliss is also unusual in the annals of queer characters on television simply by virtue of being a long-standing, regular character with a range of attributes that are unrelated to his sexuality. Where queer characters have been introduced on TV shows, it has often been for a limited series of episodes. They are there as a way for the show to deal with the ‘issue' of homosexuality or bisexuality, and as such are seen purely in terms of their sexual orientation. Bayliss, however, is defined at least equally, or perhaps even primarily, in terms of his job. Throughout Seasons 6 and 7, there are many episodes that simply show him as a detective at work.
Season 7 did take on the issue of workplace prejudice, however, as news of Bayliss's bisexuality begins to spread in the macho Homicide unit. Season 7 is in many ways about pressures beginning to accumulate on Bayliss. And one of those pressures is the loss of his partner, Pembleton (due to actor Andre Braugher's decision to leave the show at the end of Season 6). Bayliss and Pembleton will be reunited in the movie that concludes the show. But for this season, Bayliss has to deal with the gap left by Pembleton's absence. And he – and the audience – have to consider the depth of his feelings for his heterosexual, married partner.
In episode 7:16, ‘Truth Will Out', Bayliss finds himself drawn to a gay man who bears a physical resemblance to Pembleton. Secor says that the resemblance was definitely a deliberate move on the part of the show's casting directors. He adds: “You know, and it was in Tim [Bayliss]'s mind too. Even if he wasn't quite…” He laughs. “Tim was just a little bit behind the count, as we say. He was always just catching up to himself, always catching up to what was really going on. And maybe in the – you know, in the middle of that episode, he finally went ‘Oh, this guy's black and he's bald. God, he's like Frank [Pembleton]! Oh, my God! Wow!'” He laughs.
Secor says that the closeness of the relationship between Bayliss and Pembleton always raised the question of where you draw the line between platonic and romantic love. He says: “It brings up the great question of ‘What kind of love is there between men?' It goes to the deeper questions that all writers attempt to [address]. You know: ‘What is love?' The detective thing: ‘What is truth? What is justice?'
“And with Frank and me, it really was about that. How deeply can love go between two comrades, and not include sex in that? It's unrequited [love on Bayliss's part]. And it's a marriage, and it's all of these things, but it's……. you know, they don't go at it.” He laughs.
Without giving away too many plot details, the climax of the Homicide movie is a rooftop confrontation between Bayliss and Pembleton, who have both returned to the unit following the shooting of someone close to them. Secor recalls that “finally at the end, in the movie, [there is] that kind of cathartic moment […] And it was to where we… it felt we were close enough that we were gonna kiss, and, you know… Andre's incredibly magnetic, and it would have been very interesting, and weird if [the writers] would have gone down that way with these characters.”
He reflects on the nature of Bayliss's feelings for Pembleton, which are never explicitly stated in the show: “[The writers are] very good about leaving a lot of stuff unspoken. And Andre's such a powerful, masculine presence, but within the masculine presence he has a great feminine quality to him, a soft quality, and it comes through in his eyes and in his smile.
“And that's the thing that gets to Tim, when he gets the smile.” He laughs. “Andre was, you know, sort of my perfect unreachable lover.”
Homicide is a show that would be worth watching simply for the quality of its writing and acting. With Bayliss's coming out, it became a show that was groundbreaking in its sustained and thoughtful treatment of a queer lead character. But it was also a show where the queer lead character's feelings for another man were integral to the arc of the series. As an anonymous commentator on popular TV website JumpTheShark.com wrote:
“Homocide [sic] was the best drama on television. Without question I can say this. However, what most people, and in the end, the show itself, did not seem to understand was that Homicide was about Bayliss falling in love with Frank. It wasn't about them falling in love with each other, as Frank would not cheat on his wife. But Bayliss discovers himself through Pembleton and falls in love with his creator – a beacon of strength, charisma, and passion.
“If you have the movie on tape, watch the scene where they walk out of the bar after talking to a drug dealer. Bayliss says ‘I really loved… working with you' or something to that effect. The gap is powerful and speaks for itself.”
Homicide: Life On The Street Complete Series Megaset
is available at amazon.com.