Is new PBS series a ‘Vicious’ stereotype?

Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen are out and proud. But does their new Britcom stereotype gays?

In the show “Vicious,” which bows on PBS Sunday, June 29, Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen play two bitchy old queens, for want of a better description – indeed the Britcom was originally titled “Vicious Old Queens” – who’ve been lovers for 50 years.

Both are among the greatest actors of this or any century and long out of the closet. And the series was picked up in its native England for a second season. But some critics complained – and some here wonder – whether it plays into gay stereotypes, or whether we’re all too sensitive to political correctness.

“It’s actually a sign that we’ve all matured, and now it’s perfectly respectable to have an exaggerated, farcical representation of two people who are gay,” McKellen said in Dave Itzkoff’s piece for the June 29 New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section. “And for us to accept that they can be figures of fun, just in the same way as a farce about straight people would be.”

Maybe so, but I asked myself, Would we in this country accept as “mature” stereotyped portraits of blacks? Of Jews? Of women? (Well, there are still plenty of female stereotypes, some promulgated by women themselves.)

On the other hand, some people fit into group stereotypes. All clichés begin with some truth. Should we accept that, particularly as minorities get stronger footholds in the mainstream?

I found myself turning to the four gay athletes – two swimmers and two tennis players – who are the main characters in my new novel “Water Music.” Although the novel has its own “soundtrack” – two of the characters have a strong connection to music – no one bursts into show tunes. There’s no mention of Barbra Streisand. (Not that we don’t love Babs. Who doesn’t love a soprano with her own little shopping center in her home?)

But for any number of reasons, I couldn’t go there. I’m not a gay man – or woman, for that matter. My heroes are athletes in a world that at the time I wrote “Water Music” had yet to see the pop culture rise of Johnny Weir, the advent of Michael Sam or the return of Jason Collins – a world that I still believe is the last bastion of homophobia.

So my characters are in a profession that requires a certain masculine reserve and they themselves are not, as one of them remarks, “poster children for revelations.” There’s a tense disconnect between their public restraint and private expressivity that I think comes not only with being the dominant, more powerful sex, which men still are, but with being rivals who are also lovers. I wanted my characters to be locked in a psychological vise they would have to try and break. There wouldn’t be much of a vise – or much of a story – if they were like Jack on “Will & Grace.”

Even in the forthcoming “In This Place You Hold Me” – the second novel in my series “The Games Men Play – which I began long before Michael Sam came out and in which the quarterback-lovers are moving to a new openness, there’s still a real concern about the consequences of that, given the macho culture of the NFL and the viciousness of our confessional TMZ world.

Which brings me to my next point, the continuous curiosity of those who assume that I must’ve based my characters on real athletes, real people I know. Of course. No one writes in a vacuum. As the Romanian director Liviu Ciulei once told me, “All originality is lack of information.” But just as I wasn’t interested in replicating “Will & Grace” or “The Birdcage,” I couldn’t go with the gluten-free diet, lining up water bottles on the tennis court, wearing a grille on the podium, traveling the world with twin children or anything else that was a wink-wink, nod-nod to real tennis players and swimmers.

One of the reasons I’ve always loved reading fiction – and now spend more time writing it than reading it – is that it’s an escape. It wouldn’t be much of an escape if it were same-old, same-old.

I’m still crazy enough to believe that it’s what we do with the information we have that makes us – and our writing – original.