Anyone who turned on a TV that week would have encountered a bizarrely queer couple of days. The season premiere of the show Family featured a teen finding out his friend is gay; the new sitcom Alice began its regular run with a visit from a gay football player; The Nancy Walker Show introduced one of TV’s first recurring gay characters; Barney Miller brought two gay friends in for the start of a two-parter.
And television wasn’t the only medium going gay! The comedy Norman Is That You? premiered that week, in close proximity on the schedule to Car Wash and The Ritz, all with prominent queer characters. David Bowie had just come out. Elton John was about to. It was the year of A Chorus Line on Broadway.
But for all the queer entertainment that year, this one week stood out beyond all others for the sheer concentration of queerness in the span of just a couple days. So … what happened?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at the sitcom Alice, which provides some clues.
Alice, if you’re not familiar, is based on the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — a dark, gritty, often violent story about a single mom working in a diner. It is mystifying that anyone thought this would be a good basis for a sitcom, but then again it worked with M*A*S*H. While the film has a grim verisimilitude, the show, which premiered in 1976, has a cozy, corny vibe. “Kiss my grits” is the harshest the language ever gets.
The show’s regular run began on September 29, 1976, and it begins with Alice — a wisecracking single mom/diner waitress — meeting a handsome, affable friend-of-a-friend named Jack. The two hit it off and hang out a few times, and Alice even suggests that Jack and a trusted friend take her son on a fishing trip.
But then comes the mid-episode twist: Jack’s gay. And Alice is suddenly tense about letting him take her son anywhere.
That echoes an anxiety that the television industry was going through at the time. Over the last few years, television had grown increasingly comfortable with “edgy” content, with an increase in primetime shows that featured sexual and violent content — as well as queer characters, which was a huge shift from years past.
Conservatives argued that TV’s boundary-pushing was harmful to kids, and called for more regulation. And they got their wish in 1974, when NBC aired a particularly shocking TV movie called Born Innocent. The film featured Linda Blair (of The Exorcist) enduring a quite graphic same-sex sexual assault. Blair’s character was a minor — just fourteen years old — and the scene was so vivid and horrifying that Congress and the FCC began looking into regulatory options.
The networks panicked at the thought of having to comply with government-issued content guidelines, and so they hastily developed their own. They called it “The Family Hour,” and promised that the 8 to 9 pm block would be free of objectionable content, with generous content warnings to satisfy even the most anxious conservative. At last, the children were saved from the evils of television.
Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to work. In reality, The Family Hour was a huge flop. It forced the networks to constantly move shows all over the schedule depending on the content of each particular episode. And viewers hated it: Many of the shows created for that season were canceled almost immediately as ratings cratered.
Back on the show Alice, Alice’s anxiety about letting Jack take her son Tommy on a fishing trip produced similar regrets. At first, she decides to cancel the trip, but then she feels terrible about it. Jack, sensing her discomfort, asks her what’s going on, and she confesses that she feels like she needs to “protect” Tommy. And while that might sound reasonable, Jack asks her to consider why she thinks that he’s a threat. Would she still be so anxious if he was straight? Alice realizes that the answer is “no,” and that her anxiety was based on prejudice — not reality.
To his credit, Jack never tells her what to do. But he doesn’t need to; Alice changes her mind and sends Tommy on the trip with Jack and another trusted friend.
Similarly, the TV industry quickly changed its mind after adopting The Family Hour. After proving itself to be a logistical, economic, and ratings flop in 1975, the networks were ready to bounce back in 1976 with a return to their more daring fare. Their first opportunity to do so was the premiere week in late September, when all the new shows debuted and the old ones returned with cast and story shakeups.
Premiere week and the end of The Family Hour isn’t the only reason that television went so gay that year. This was also a time when a surge in queer activism put LGBTQ+ issues on the front page of newspapers; and behind the scenes, activists were pushing producers to include more diverse depictions of queer lives on TV. Meanwhile, other forms of entertainment were moving way out ahead of TV — 1975 was a big year for queer films, for gay topics on Broadway, and in music.
All of those factors came together at just the right time in late 1976 to produce a glorious parade of queerness across television, a phenomenon that was so attention-grabbing that pop culture critics of the time wrote breathless articles about how television had gone completely gay.
Of course, all that would change in the 1980s, but that’s a story for another time. Which you can read right over here.
Just as banning Tommy from going on a trip with a gay guy didn't actually protect anyone, The Family Hour was a huge failure just about any way you slice it — because in both circumstances, exposing kids to the existence of queer people isn't a threat.
At the end of the episode, Alice tells her kid that Jack is gay, and his response: "I don't care." That's pretty much how it always goes when kids find out that queer people exist. For all the hand-wringing and anxiety that the subject generates in adults, the response from youth is consistently a great big "so what?"