I FIRST FOUND The Outs late one night a few years ago, amid a deep internet dive for queer web series. Netflix’s “Gay & Lesbian” offerings tend toward low-budget American softcore and tragically star-crossed foreign coming-out stories (and I’d already watched most of them anyway), so when I came upon The Outs, a beautifully shot, sharply written comedy set in Brooklyn about a pair of ex-boyfriends — Mitchell (creator, director, and co-writer Adam Goldman) and Jack (Hunter Canning) — and their friends — notably Oona (series co-writer Sasha Winters) — I watched all seven episodes of the first season in a giddy, insomniac vigil.
Web series in general are a way to find underfunded people making interesting work, and they often offer more diversity, of both narrative and subject matter, than even the second-string original-programming slate of most online streaming services. The Outs was funded through a Kickstarter, but despite its DIY bona fides it feels remarkably like a television series, complete with a playlist-worthy soundtrack. The second season of The Outs, six half-hour episodes, premiered March 30 on Vimeo On Demand as part of the site’s original programming debut. This boost has added some truly lovely B-roll, but otherwise admirably retains the texture of the first.
A standout scene from the first season, in an episode called “Over It,” takes place at a late-night, hole-in-the-wall diner where four of the characters sit sipping coffee in a cramped booth. Mitchell is arguing with Paul (known for most of the first season only as “Scruffy,” played by Tommy Heleringer) about President Obama’s famously “evolving” position on same-sex marriage: Mitchell defends it, Paul decries it, while Jack coyly recuses himself. Their conversation turns to hate speech (Mitchell: “Some asshole called me a ‘faggot’ at Whole Foods”), and the question of what to do in the face of it, and the table is again divided.
It’s a classic Sex and the City setup: a table, an issue, a difference of opinion. In Sex and the City, the varied experience of sexually liberated and professional womanhood is sufficient to support a range of opinion; in The Outs, Goldman has created a show with sufficient depth to support conflicting notions of sexual and identity politics, a complexity rarely afforded to queer characters onscreen. That four college-educated gay men living above the poverty line in Brooklyn might feel differently about any number of issues — not simply Bernie versus Hillary, but issues that might not occur, or not even occur not to have occurred, to a heterosexual audience — is at least as revolutionary as the idea that four professional women in Manhattan 20 years ago might not agree on threesomes or the ethics of fake orgasms.
Given its setting and the demographic of its protagonists (twentysomething), it may be tempting to compare it to any number of shows — to call it, for instance, a male Sex and the City, a Brooklyn Looking, a gay Girls, a less gainfully employed Will & Grace — but its closest TV relative may be Broad City. Both series began as self-funded passion projects of their creators and stars, and both have since been vaulted to distribution deals, publicity, and production budgets. Both are driven by the writing, humor, and politics of their creators, and both take identity politics as a given; no less than being an empowered woman, being openly queer, whether in 2016, or 2012, or 1987, or 1969, is inherently political. Perhaps the greatest similarity, though, is both shows’ web-native scrappiness, which can see beyond the limitations of the medium. Neither is content merely to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors.
The Outs fills a unique place in the television landscape even as it winkingly transcends it, consistently introducing low-hanging plot points, considering them, and declining to indulge. In one episode in the second season, Mitchell is in sudden need of a roommate. Jack offers gingerly to move in, to which Mitchell responds with exhausted repulsion, “Jesus, God, no, please … I mean, thank you, that’s very sweet of you, but that’s just, like, the worst possible, cheesiest, television version of our lives. It doesn’t make any sense” — a meta nod to what might have been a plot-point layup on a different show, like Friends or Will & Grace (on which almost exactly that happened at least once).
The relationships on The Outs are queer in a way that challenges the popular image of a same-sex relationship, both for romantic partners and friends. Whereas the boundaries of Will and Jack’s friendship on Will & Grace were defined by their mutual sexual repulsion — as though that might be the only reason for two gay men not to sleep together — the friendship between Mitchell and Jack is devoid of sexual tension because of their history and their mutual growth. They’re ex-boyfriends with emotional benefits.
For a show set in the post-DOMA United States, on the heels of Obergefell v. Hodges, talk of same-sex marriage is notably — though not inexplicably — absent. A rare mention occurs in the third episode, when Mitchell’s British boyfriend Rob sighs in exasperation over a health insurance debacle and suggests just getting married so he can get a green card. “Let’s just get married. Then I’ll be a citizen and you can be my ‘baby-daddy,’ or wha’ever. And then everything will work itself out. Yeah?” Mitchell answers simply, “Alrighty,” and spoons him comfortingly. This view of marriage as a practical solution — for the sake of health insurance, of all things — is generational as much as it is an instance of gay cynicism about traditionally exclusive civic institutions, but to see it so nonchalantly on display is noteworthy, and of a piece with a certain strain of young, queer cognoscenti.
But even to call cynicism about same-sex marriage “noteworthy” — or to call ambivalence “cynicism” — is an observation steeped in a view of gay life as aspiring to necessarily normative achievements. These characters live in the same United States as the rest of us, with the same multiplicity of sentiment around what it means to get gay-married, from anti-assimilationist dissenters to more traditional, solitaire-engagement-ring romantics. More than any other series I’ve seen, The Outs deals in these deeper cuts of queer politics in rants about tone-deaf pro-gay tweets and nonnormative notions of sexual fealty, evidence of a collective self-examination and an anti-assimilatory politics that challenges the normative, family-friendly, two-men-and-a-baby gayness that has dominated queer representation in pop culture.
This is the norm of the anti-norm, the queer self that questions normative virtues without necessarily challenging them as invalid. The Outs represents a plurality of queer politics with a greater breadth than in a show in which gay characters are shunted off to the side or fettered by the traditional boundaries of same-sex relationships and parenthood. The Outs exists in a world of marriage equality, and doubtless couldn’t be so casual without it, even as it presses against the walls of normativity, increasingly within reach.
The Outs blends tenets of modern queer thought with an almost imperceptible flourish: at least twice in the series, same-sex couples make reference to group sex, or to having been with other people, without making it a topic of discussion. No one is surprised or upset, and the conversation simply moves forward. In the universe of The Outs, and in a contemporary, urban, millennial milieu, such asides have the potency of an on-screen bong — an ordinary feature of life, signifying nothing, really. Without speaking against the values of marriage and family, and all the things the marriage-equality movement has put forth as cardinal queer virtues, The Outs contains characters who, without crises of self-love or -interest, go about life in loving relationships that may or may not include men on the side or threesome sex with mysterious strangers that later become fun stories to tell at happy hour.
This manner of talking about gay sex and relationships is refreshingly blasé, and it subtly quashes the parallel visions of gay men as Modern Family minstrels and debaucherous perverts living in sex communes, as well as the gawker’s urge to delve into specifics. There is no inherent morality to sex, and the only character whose sexual choices are questioned is Oona, the lone straight woman, and she questions them herself.
The Outs is an example of what will hopefully, eventually, one day be commonplace: it’s a show featuring gay characters that isn’t about being gay. The characters of The Outs can hear the subway from inside their apartments, they show up at the door when a friend is in crisis, they worry about making rent; their apartments may be a few Airbnb clicks nicer than most people’s I know, but they have roommates, they make booty calls, and some of them are men who date men. The New York City they live in is one I recognize, a fact that, perhaps even more than the characters’ experiences, politics, or sexuality, breathes real life into the show and its characters.