Going for Gold: The Work and Career of Brian Jordan Alvarez




I REMEMBER SEEING Will & Grace for the first time in the late 1990s. I was barely 30, at the beginning of my long-term relationship with the man who would become my husband. We were high off the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres in her own sitcom — a breakthrough moment for many queer people in terms of mass media representation, even if that breakthrough would lead to the show’s cancellation shortly thereafter. Though DeGeneres’s show didn’t last, Will & Grace followed quickly to show gay people, however stereotypically at times, being their fabulous selves in millions of American living rooms. The queer theorist and critic in me initially scoffed at the less-than-serious antics and situations in this show and its stereotypical characters — self-loathing and miserable Will, or butt-of-every-joke Jack. After all, America at that time had a long way to go before legalizing same-sex marriage and open military service — only two of the most conservative civil rights gays were asking for. In time, though, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that Will & Grace introduced gays as a normal part of American life to a whole generation of young people. And that generation grew up to help make our current world one that’s a bit more tolerant and understanding.

The return of Will & Grace to television (with the ninth season having already aired on NBC and the 10th having premiered earlier this month) is surely a nostalgia trip for many of us, a chance to see those fellow youngsters now navigate middle age. But the producers of the show have smartly ushered in some other recurring characters, such as one played by Brian Jordan Alvarez, a young openly gay actor who plays Jack’s love interest. Alvarez’s appearance is notable for many reasons, not just as an attempt by producers to catch the interest of younger viewers. For the last several years, Alvarez has built a substantial following on YouTube and other web-based video content providers as an important writer and filmmaker, one who has pushed the boundaries of queer storytelling with a variety of original content, such as his immensely popular web series The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo.

But Alvarez has bigger ambitions. His appearance on Will & Grace is a breakthrough into what he refers to as the “system” — more mainstream, bigger budget media production.

I sat down recently with Alvarez to talk about his career. As someone long interested in DIY media-making, particularly that which tells “alternative” stories, I have been tracking Alvarez’s ascent, from his production of numerous short comic sketches, to his web series, and now to his mainstream breakthrough — which coincides with his release on the internet of a feature-length film, Grandmother’s Gold. Alvarez has his hand in many pots, stirring with what he calls a “gentle consistency” and abiding by the principle of “do less, more often” His steady approach, he says, began early, making claymation films and other media when he was still a child, and he suggests that it’s important to “diversify a lot,” never relying on just one thing.

His approach is paying off. When I asked him what he wants to do next, he immediately replied: “Make something with a big scope.” Up to this point, Alvarez has smartly and creatively been working “with just what we had available” — and with no small success. But now, he wants “to make huge movies and star in huge movies.” He wants to be a traditional movie star — but an openly gay one — who revels in making gigantic, fantastic, mind-blowing studio movies. Think Mission: Impossible, but with a gay lead. As he puts it, “I want to make the best work I can. I’m gay and I’m not going to be in the closet when I make that work.” Having come of age during the first heyday of Will & Grace, he’s absorbed the initial possibilities of exploring diverse lives openly and honestly, and he’s ready to explore further: “We are here, expanding the space for queer people.”

As a solid GenXer who did not grow up with such possibilities, my gay self thrills to hear this young, talented actor and filmmaker dream so big. But as I explore Alvarez’s work and think about what he’s already done as an actor and filmmaker, I sense that his story — and the story he’s telling us — is much more sophisticated and compelling than just garnering greater visibility for queer people. Alvarez’s work is deceptively charming, inviting you in through comic touches that gesture toward complexity and depth — a depth that’s in many ways about the difficulty of telling stories right now.

Grandmother’s Gold offers a fascinating case in point. Just released in July (you can see it on YouTube), the film is a frolicking, multi-genre romp set in the greater L.A. area between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the year 2023. Siblings Danny (Alvarez) and Madeline (played by Alvarez’s longtime creative partner Stephanie Koenig) have just had a fight with their parents over Thanksgiving dinner, and they meet for lunch to commiserate about their lives. Like many millennials, they’re struggling to know who they are, wanting to know what to do with their lives, and wondering how they can find happiness and fulfillment. The existential angst is initially high as Danny muses, “One of these days we’re going to know what all of this is about.” But before we can get too comfortable in this all-too-familiar John Hughes’s territory, we’re given multiple cues that Grandmother’s Gold is set in a different time, a strange future in which society collectively decided to get rid of the internet. No Facebook, no cell phones, no email. Folks have to rely on voicemail attached to landline phones to retrieve messages from one another.

The science-fictiony narrative escalates when the siblings wake up the following morning to discover the power is out and their friend Jim (Ken Kirby) warning of impending economic collapse. Since the “internet spontaneously arose from humanity” and had become central to human functioning — “we are the internet; the internet was us” — the suppression of it is precipitating collapse. Young adult apocalypse turns quickly into a buddy journey as Jim tells the siblings that their grandmother is sitting on a pot of gold (which may be helpful once money is worthless), but they’re going to have to solve a riddle in order to get it. En route to Malibu and the grandmother, the trio pick up a stray cast of oddballs, wrangle with the denizens of a homeless tent community, encounter a hot cop, escape from a guy who turns out to have killed and eaten his parents, and secure the assistance of a waiter who is uncannily good at solving riddles — which the troupe will need once they find granny. All the while the gang trades jokes, flirtations, and thoughts on the direction of their lives.

The genre play is delightfully bewildering, with dystopian horror quickly turning into campy slapstick, a pop music soundtrack gesturing toward ’80s teen comedy. Once the travelers find the grandmother and work through the riddles — all done without the aid of the internet, thinking on their own — they discover that there’s no pot of gold. Instead, they’ve been in a “test” — a twist reminiscent but also parodic of so many maze-running YA Hunger Games narratives. But the plot doesn’t stay put there. God himself appears to tell the friends, the siblings in particular, that they have yet to pass the ultimate test: they will get the gold and everything their hearts desire, but they have to answer a question: “What’s the true meaning of Christmas?” If they answer correctly, the power comes back on and all is right with the world, but if they answer incorrectly, everyone dies, slowly and painfully as the globe descends into general chaos. The siblings have a clue though: “It’s something you’ve already learned along the way.”

Of course, the answer is … family, or “the feeling you can get from other people that lets you know you’re not alone in the world.” Twisting the nipples on the ultimate Hollywood cliché (think It’s a Wonderful Life) Grandmother’s Gold rewards the correct answer with coins raining down from the sky. The parents also appear, because what the siblings truly want is to spend Christmas with their estranged mom and dad. This ending, though, is hardly so pat and tidy. The internet isn’t coming back: “The internet died for our sins.” Some sacrifices, after all, must be made.

Part of what feels sacrificed in Grandmother’s Gold is conventional narrative. The intense genre-bending — and breaking — suggests significant anxiety about the power any one kind of story to capture the ludicrous complexity of contemporary young adulthood. These are young people who want a future, who want significance and meaningfulness, but the popular narratives surrounding them — dystopia, the buddy adventure, even post-teen romance — aren’t really providing it. Life is a riddle, and even the all-knowing internet isn’t offering answers. The turn to family might seem a simplifying gesture, then, but it’s not. This family is, in FB parlance, “complicated,” with its own queerness and vexed history. (Watch the film to find out — I won’t give everything away.)

Such complication, particularly the complications of intimacy, may be at the heart of Alvarez’s work, paralleling his bravura genre play. In a society seemingly on the edge of collapse, our interest in one another might be one of our only guides for connection, support, and a modicum of security. But such interest isn’t easy, and traditional genres that model connection and intimacy (the buddy adventure, the romance) aren’t always the best guides to finding, nurturing, and sustaining it. Sometimes, like the characters in Grandmother’s Gold, you have to make the story up as you go along, mixing and matching bits and pieces of narratives to try to make sense of it all. That is, you take the narratives you’ve inherited — grandmother’s gold — but you might ultimately have to tell them in ways that make sense to you, not necessarily her.

The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, a five-part web series, explores in delightfully comic and tender ways the difficult joys of partnering with others, especially when traditional narratives of romance and intimacy just don’t fit. An earlier work, it remains one of Alvarez’s most popular — and critically acclaimed — creations. Caleb Gallo played at Tribeca in the New Online Work section in 2016 and went on to be nominated for a Gotham Award that same year. It was also Indiewire’s number-one web series in 2016. A smart, funny, and quirky look at millennial life in Los Angeles, it’s far funnier and more engaging (to me at least) than Eastsiders. Caleb and his best friend Karen (played by Alvarez and Koenig, as in Grandmother’s Gold) commiserate about their various relationships. Caleb has a crush on straight friend Billy, whom Karen will soon go on a date with, while Caleb also carries on a FaceTime relationship with Benicio, who will soon be coming for a visit. Meanwhile, mutual friend Len can’t decide if he’s bi, and he tries on for size a date with gender-fluid Freckle. Eventually, Benicio wants to become exclusive, but Caleb and Billy actually hook up … and complications ensue.

Although the plot moves quickly (each episode ranges from 10 to over 20 minutes), the characters assume density, the show raising thorny questions about polyamory, gender, intimacy, and friendship. As I watched, I kept thinking of my generation’s comparable indie flick, Chasing Amy (1997), about a guy whose best friend falls in love with a bisexual woman, a relationship that triggers the friend’s jealousy. While Kevin Smith plays the complications of young adult intimacy dramatically, Alvarez offers a lighter touch — but the underlying drama is nonetheless palpable. At the end of the series, as relationships are strained and flying apart, Benicio poignantly asks, “Can’t we just do something normal? Can’t we just be normal people?” Caleb knows the truth, though: “We aren’t normal people.” But they do love one another, and they figure out that that love might not be easy, but it connects them nonetheless in ways that are pleasurable, sustaining, and ultimately joyful — joyful perhaps because of what’s risked in connecting. And also queer in the creation of connection and bonds outside of traditional familial lines.

In a way, Caleb Gallo feels more coherent than Grandmother’s Gold, the former seeming to stay within the generic boundaries of a comic web series. But that coherence is deceptive in that Caleb Gallo’s intensity — its characters’ mania and unrelenting self-questioning bordering on real trouble, and possible despair — prefigures the raucous genre-breaking of Grandmother’s Gold. This is media for our times, as seen by some of our youngest and most creative filmmakers. Our old stories are flying apart. There’s a huge mismatch between the stories we’ve been told about things such as love, on one hand, and the ways intimacy and sexuality actually play out in a life. Driving the point home, Caleb Gallo ends with a marriage ceremony, but this time it’s a marriage that’s expansive, capacious, encompassing more than what the old story envisioned.

Similarly, Grandmother’s Gold strives to rewrite the narratives we keep telling ourselves. Its world is one in deep trouble, a riddle needing some serious solving. And when our heroes find themselves next in line to answer the riddle, they decide they want both the gold and the family. They want the goods held out by our civilization, the guarantee of the pursuit of happiness. But curiously that pursuit rests on having to suspend some forms of storytelling — in this film’s case, both the comfort and stability of genre conventions but also the storytelling enabled by the platform of the internet itself. I asked Alvarez why he made this particular narrative move, especially since the internet has, by some accounts, been really good to him as a conduit way for creating and disseminating his work. His response is telling, especially at this moment: “The Twitter screaming really gets to me. It just seems like so much loveless ego on crack.” It’s hard not to agree with him on this point, even as our world wide weird can keep us informed and provide spaces for commiseration. But that might be part of the problem. Our early hopes for the internet — our dreams of the creation of a highly connected global village that encourages tolerance and perhaps even acceptance of difference — are met more often these days by the realities of highly atomized and curated personal spaces that don’t necessarily foster engagement with difference but rather reinforce our separate senses of the world. And while I know Alvarez appreciates the opportunities that the internet has afforded him in distributing his work and his vision, he also frankly acknowledges that the “internet is not the destination.” It isn’t the sphere of connection we once thought it might be.

In terms of his work so far, though, the implicit message might be that we need to consider more carefully the narratives we’re consuming, the stories we tell ourselves, and let go of the comforts they offer. Remixing them, even in ways that strain them, might get us closer to the truth of who and what we are right now. I asked Alvarez what he wanted us to know about him as an artist. His answer is deceptively simple: “I want to make the world a better place.” When I pushed, he said that he’d like folks to be able to “live joyfully in the sorrows of the world,” an idea he attributes to Joseph Campbell. But I don’t think he needs Campbell. Alvarez’s art is nurtured by cutting to the core of what motivates us — the need to connect, even when such connection is difficult. What animates his particular take on this truism is his extraordinary playfulness, a delight in mixing and remixing the genres that we use to mediate the narratives of human connectivity, and our periodic failure to connect in meaningful ways. I hope he can bring that energy and playfulness into the mainstream; his creativity might exceed current market tolerances for genre disruption. He might also have to let go of his indie work to become a part of the “system.” But I like to think that he has a good shot at it. With any luck, he’ll help more of us see how we might remix our stories enough to see beyond “loveless ego on crack” and connect with each other in ways we might not yet be able to imagine.

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Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He has authored or edited 13 books, including the critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017).

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Featured image by Molly Cranna.


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