The other day I was talking to my wife about the UK buddy cop series, Scott & Bailey, which stars two actresses I greatly admire. I mentioned that I enjoyed the series so much in part because it was a show where the titular characters were women, and yet everything else was a normal cop show. It was just turned slightly to be female first.
It got me thinking, though, about how all I really wanted out of television was for the same stories we’ve always been told, but to be turned slightly. One Day at a Time (which I’ve watched more times than I can count) is exactly that. It’s a reboot with one important aspect changed.
And yet as we improve in our representation, as we get more and more shows with positive, leading role, representation, I’ve begun to see that we’re lacking in a very important, titular, way.
What is Titular Anyway?
Putting aside jokes about boobs, titular simply means that the title is named for the star. Some examples of titular shows are ones you probably know and enjoy. Wynonna Earp is a titular show, so is Magnum, P.I. and MacGyver. In fact, if you look at a number of popular shows in the 80s and 70s, you’d see a lot. Starksey & Hutch, Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Columbo, Cagney & Lacey.
For cop shows in particular, a buddy cop or a solo cop is generally given a title for their name. Walker: Texas Ranger. The same is true of non-ensemble lawyer shows like Matlock or Janet King. When you have a show that revolves around a single person, it’s common to name the show after them.
Of course, there are exceptions like Diagnosis Murder or Seal Team which both are vehicles for their stars (Dick Van Dyke and David Boreanaz respectfully). There are of course shows that are ensembles and named for them like Scorpion and ones like Grey’s Anatomy which is clearly centred around Meredith but is very much an ensemble.
Is Titularity Important?
With so many possibilities, it stands to reason that people don’t think having a show be named for the main character is important anymore. Does it really matter what The Good Fight is named when it headlines Christine Baranski? I feel that it does for two important reasons.
The first reason is that it’s about time. Look, we’ve had a hundred shows in the US where the show is named after the main character. Every single superhero show is named for the star or the team. The Defenders? Check. Arrow? Check. Equality is something we should strive for, but also by having that equal representation we get to my second reason.
Both Deputy and Tommy started this year, and both have main characters who are queer. However in Deputy, Bex Taylor-Klaus’ Bishop is not a focal point every episode. Her recent coming out as non-binary and subsequent relationship troubles are important and addressed in the show, but they are clearly secondary to her boss, Bill Hollister, and even his daughter’s quince. Tommy on the other hand is about Abigail “Tommy” Thomas. There’s no way you can watch the show and focus on anything else. She is the primary character, and everyone else’s plots wrap around her. They exist to service her character growth.
Having a queer character be the ultimate core of a television show means you can’t look away. Without Tommy, the show falls apart. Without Bishop, the queers will walk away but the show will move on. Attention begets eyes, and eyes means people see that they, as queers, can be the spotlight.
On Beyond Titular
There’s one other aspect of titularity that is often overlooked. Now I could throw a bunch of numbers at you to talk about this. Like right now, 10% of all TV shows on air in the United States that have any queer characters are named for the main character. If that’s extended to the primary team or group (i.e. Grey’s Anatomy or The Simpsons) that jumps to 23%.
And none of that is the point. Not even the point is that every single CW show on air right now has a queer regular character (I am aware of how problematic Supernatural is). Nor is the point that Freeform just had the most awesome love story between two men as their Valentine’s Day movie of 2020. It’s not even that
The point is that I can still count, on one hand, the number of titular shows that star a queer actor as a queer character. And right now, only one is on air: Batwoman. A year ago, we had two (Abby’s and Batwoman). Before that, we jump back to Ellen.
We laud (as well we should) shows like Pose for bringing in queer actors to play the diverse and complex characters. We congratulate (again, we should) The L Word: Generation Q for correcting many of the missteps of much maligned misrepresentation in the original.
Even if I take away the requirement to be titular, we still aren’t where we should be. For hard boiled detectives, yes we have Stumptown, but imagine if it had been named “Parios, PI” instead? Where’s our queer Veronica Mars or Wynonna Earp? Sure, the latter has amazing queer rep, but the star is and always will be Wynonna, not Waverly.
We’re past just needing raw representation. It’s time to get titular.