Sometimes a quickie is better. In its first season, Husbands–a web comedy about gay newlyweds–had barely as much time to tell its story as the pilot episode of a typical network sitcom. Yet in that space, it managed to tell a much more complex and interesting story about changing mores and the conflict between individuals and social causes than, say, the pilot of NBC’s The New Normal, debuting in September.
The first season (all available online) sets up its premise fast. Professional baseball player Brady (Sean Hemeon) wakes up in a hotel room after a Vegas bender next to his recent boyfriend, sexy young thing actor Cheeks (Brad Bell, who co-created Husbands with Jane Espenson, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Once Upon a Time). They’re wearing wedding rings. They quickly deduce that they got Vegas-hitched—gay marriage, in the Husbands-verse, has just been legalized—and there’s already video to prove it. Their first instinct is to get a quickie divorce, but realize they’ll become laughingstocks, and possibly set back the image of gay marriage, if the pull “a Britney.” Over 11 brief, zingy episodes, they go about the process of trying to make their marriage real.
A lot of TV sitcoms about gay couples stick to very personal stories (adoption, surrogate parenting) and work from those to strike themes about larger changes in society. Husbands is doing the opposite: it starts from a high-satire topic about the public debate over gay marriage—its leads, being celebrities, know their marriage will be in the press no matter what—and through that, ends up telling a very sweet story about two guys trying to find a way to have a relationship simply as people.
Brady is concerned for how the marriage will look in the pro sports world but also—as a rare out-gay athlete—how it will reflect on “the cause.” Cheeks, whose acting career has never been hurt by his being out and outlandish, counters: “I stand for something too, you know. I’m all about me.” One of the things that makes the first season special is how, in the process of negotiating their marriage around their public personae, Brady and Cheeks quickly come to learn about each other as people.
In the second season, which premiered its first episode yesterday, the two wake up together again, this time on their three-week anniversary. But there’s new trouble: Brady’s agent (Buffy creator / Avengers director Joss Whedon) calls up to fret that his client’s new hubby Cheeks is too outrageous, too sexual—”too gay”—for Brady’s fans. (“He could be,” the agent suggests to Brady, “more–‘appropriate’ is not the word…'” “‘Appropriate’?!” “That works.”) Which leads to an uncomfortable talk in which Brady—feeling the conflicting tugs of his career, the gay-rights movement, and his marriage—asks Cheeks to try to be less, well, himself.
The new season’s theme, with its real-world controversy parallels (there’s a “Billion Moms” protest group, a la the actual One Million Moms), risks turning the show from a relationship story to a flat-out satire. But it’s grounded by its wit, and its focus on showing us Brady and Cheeks as people, albeit people who realize they can’t avoid being cast as types—as stand-ins for the entire gay community and a larger social moment.
It’s the sort of thing that, in a bigger-scale TV show, might just collapse under its own sense of significance and topicality. Not so, so far, in Husbands, a show that manages to make a very little go a long way.