Procedurals are my comfort food, especially when they’ve got brilliant women at the forefront. Give me Crossing Jordan and its badass titular medical examiner who consistently colors outside of the lines and is usually better at catching the bad guys than the cops are. Give me this current, glorious era of Law & Order: SVU where Olivia Benson has climbed the ranks to captain while still being one of the fiercest advocates out there. Hell, give me the cozy small-town homicides of Murder, She Wrote, even though I’m pretty sure Jessica Fletcher is the one doing all those murders in the first place. I welcome all of it with open arms. Which is why I can’t for the life of me understand how I slept on Rizzoli & Isles for so many years. On paper, it checks all of my boxes: two wildly intelligent women pairing up to solve homicides on the regular, compelling mysteries every episode, and a healthy balance of humor amidst the darkness to boot. And of course, there’s its reputation for being the gayest show on TV that wasn’t actually gay, and as someone who is extremely here for both Cabenson and Rolivia on SVU, I figured throwing one more crime fighting ship onto the pile wouldn’t hurt anything. So when I saw that it started streaming back in June (a little on the nose to release it during Pride, HBO Max, I see you), I finally took the plunge to see what I had been missing.
Depending on how you look at it, that was either the absolute best or worst decision I’ve ever made with my life.
I got sucked in so fast that easing into something new never had the chance to be a possibility; it was just the flip of a switch. One day, I’m thinking about giving this show a couple episodes’ worth of my time, and the next day, it has fully consumed my life. I’ve honestly lost count of what rewatch I’m currently in the middle of, but I’m also dropping everything to watch it whenever I see a rerun on TV. I tore through all twelve of the books currently in the series on which the show is based in under two months. Not to mention, the chemistry between Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles had me singing “I will go down with this ship” by the time they hopped into Maura’s guest bed in the pilot, exactly like I expected it would. And I’ve got to hand it to them…Olivia Benson and Alex Cabot–in all of their personal space is a myth, openly devastated at being ripped apart by witness protection, “Oh my god, they’re wearing matching necklaces” glory–could never prepare me for Rizzles, and the blatant and aggressive queerbaiting that came along with that ship.
Rizzoli & Isles is so gay. SO GAY. I do not understand how a show with that many straight people in it can be so thoroughly, queerly gay. It defies all logic. And everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing…they just weren’t ever going to give the people what they wanted. Thankfully, we’ve got the internet to fix these things for us. I dove head first into the sea of fanfiction that seemingly has no end. My YouTube watch history is just crack vid after crack vid now, with the occasional evil genius fanvid to swoop in and break me in the most satisfying way. But it’s still frustrating; over the course of seven seasons, what was once actually kind of subtle at first (despite an episode where Jane and Maura go undercover as lesbians, the first two seasons don’t go quite as hard as the other five) eventually becomes a targeted attack that lasts right up until Jane and Maura are ready to board that plane to Paris at the very end of the series. And I fell for it, even though I was hyper aware that it was happening the entire time. Even though I knew there would never be any payoff to any of it.
What the hell is that about?
I wasn’t expecting to be sucked into the whole Rizzles thing so quickly and so fiercely. And I certainly wasn’t expecting the show to make me examine my relationship with queer media as a whole. But as I finished my first go around with Rizzoli & Isles, I couldn’t stop asking myself why. Why wasn’t it bothering me that I knew I was being queerbaited, the way it probably should be? Why, when I had shows that were actually queer to geek out about, was I clinging to a TV couple that didn’t even exist within their own fictional world? And why did I keep coming back to it again and again? It was one thing to go into something like this without realizing what was in store, but I knew what I was getting into. And because I can’t let go of anything, I wanted to dig a little deeper into what could be the reasoning behind this rapid spiral I’ve found myself in.
But before I truly get into that, please enjoy a sampling of the ways this show immediately made your friendly neighborhood lesbian lose her very gay mind.
“We’re life-long best friends forever…get it?”
There are definite levels to the pseudo-queerness of Rizzoli & Isles, starting with the tiny, fleeting moments that start to nudge you in the direction of boarding this ship. You can pick just about any episode and land on a glance or a touch that could, at the very least, spark a fic drabble (if you want to catch me completely in my feelings, talk to me about the fact that this show has painted both Jane and Maura as women who definitely aren’t huggers…unless it’s with each other). Those glances and hugs alone would probably be enough to make me sound like a wounded seal every time they happened, but then they have to go and add the constant wells of banter that just feel so domestic, especially when you consider the fact that Jane spends so much time at Maura’s house, I’m not even sure why she has her own apartment in the first place; every single time I hit that debate about sharing a quart of frozen yogurt, it screams “We’re married,” and I can never unhear it. And by the time the final season rolls around and Maura’s doing things like special ordering a Red Sox saber guard so that Jane can easily pick her out from the crowd during her fencing tournaments, you’re convinced that the strange and impossible hill the powers that be are choosing to die on–that is, trying to convince the audience that Jane and Maura are strictly platonic–is also the wrong one.
Then there are the moments that are more obvious, but still seem inevitable regardless of whatever weird queerbaiting the show has in store. The fact that there’s an episode in the first season called “I Kissed a Girl” that involves both Jane and Maura going undercover in a lesbian bar is a definite choice, and I would love to sit down with everyone involved to learn just how strategic of a choice it was to do this six episodes into the series. In all fairness, this was probably going to happen eventually: Jane Rizzoli does fall into a couple stereotypes, you’ve got a duo of women at the helm of this show, and that’s just how TV does the math sometimes. But this was definitely their opportunity to get away with a few things, from Jane and Maura innocently and accidentally spending the night together in Jane’s bed to this beauty of a scene:
Perhaps more inevitable, though, is the time during the second season when they relied on the whole “let’s pretend we’re a couple so the guy who can’t take a hint finally backs off” deal. When Jane’s mom’s car breaks down and Maura gets one look at Giovanni the mechanic, all she wants to do is sleep with him. But the second she realizes it’s impossible for her to hold any kind of conversation with him, that flame goes out real quick. The only problem is that Giovanni is of the firm belief that Maura is his soulmate, and she can’t get rid of the guy. That is…until she comes up with the brilliant idea to pass Jane and herself off as a couple. Maura’s wrapped in Jane’s arms, they’re calling each other “Babe,” and Giovanni, the sweet summer child that he is, completely falls for it to the point of asking if they’re still together every other time he shows up in this series. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, and it was only a matter of time before they used it, but at least they got it over with early on in the series.
If this were the end of it, I’m not sure if there would be too much of a case for queerbaiting. But those moments are mere factors of a longer game at play that makes you start to realize that maybe you weren’t reading too much into the glances and banter after all. It’s one thing for everyone on this show to keep piling these fleeting things on top of each other like they’re an Olive Garden server with a cheese grater and no one’s saying when. It’s another when everything is exacerbated by the fact that both Jane’s and Maura’s track record with men completely sucks.
Jane exclusively dates men who regularly have to leave the state/country thanks to their work: Agent Dean with the FBI, Casey with the Army, and remember that time they tried to make Donnie Wahlberg happen before shipping his character off to Washington DC? But not to worry; the fact that they can never stay in Boston for too long is totally a plus for Jane! Especially when it comes to Casey (and exactly why did they keep trying to make that happen for so many seasons when they had to know damn well nothing would ever come of it?), once things start to get super domestic, his leave would conveniently be up, and Jane would be relieved that he was going back to Afghanistan even though the show kept pushing the fact that she was head over heels in love with him. It was a weird dynamic that lasted longer than it should have. But at least there was a man there to periodically remind us that Jane’s a straight woman!
And then there’s Maura, who’s not faring much better, between the dude she ended up diagnosing on the first date, the trauma surgeon who kept referring to himself in the third person, the big love she could never truly have because he was off providing medical aid in Africa, and these winners she can describe better than I ever could:
Maura: The guy who I had the most amazing sexual chemistry with? A face licker.
Maura: And the next guy who I had feelings for ended up dead, and I was framed for his murder.
Jane: To be fair, getting murdered was not his fault. For all we know, he could have been a wonderful boyfriend.
Maura: And then the guy who said he really wanted my body? He meant it literally, because he was a serial killer who made sculptures out of dead women’s bodies.
Jane: Yes, that was unfortunate.
This show goes out of its way to make sure you know that these women are straight (like, for serious, no stray homosexual thoughts in these minds, never, look at this parade of men!), but they also set out to destroy every relationship Jane and Maura have. And for as much as these two dish about the guys they’re into that particular episode, the emotional connection they have with each other and the way that they are clearly each other’s person–romantic or not, they are vulnerable with each other in a way they’re incapable of being with anyone else–are so incredibly strong that it almost becomes laughable whenever one of them pushes the other to make a move on said guys. That door to possibility routinely opens up just a crack before getting shut all over again, and that alone is a lot for this queer heart of mine to take. But then sometimes, they take it a step further just to stoke the hope that maybe, someday, these women will finally get their shit together and realize what’s been in front of them the whole time. And one of the most notable times in my mind is that time Jane almost got engaged to Casey.
By the time we get to season four, the whole Casey thing had really overstayed its welcome; the fact that it stretched over multiple seasons with no real movement in one direction or the other got more exhausting as the episodes went on. So when Casey finally proposes and Jane takes her sweet ass time to give a definite answer (an answer that takes five episodes to get to, mind you), it was great to feel like this part was finally starting to wind down. As much as they kept trying to make Casey a thing, Jane was always painted as someone who would never sacrifice her job at BPD for a relationship, which was a big factor in the whole proposal dilemma: one of them had to quit their job in order to make it work. It didn’t look good for a happily ever after. But just before that storyline wound down, the show decided to gift us with Maura’s response to Jane wearing an engagement ring, and it’s a doozy:
I have to say, it’s interesting to compare the way Maura reacted to the possibility (POSSIBILITY, there hadn’t even been a legitimate yes at that point) of Jane getting engaged to the way she reacted to the news that Jane would be taking the FBI instructor job and leaving for Quantico in the final season. Obviously she’s sad over the thought of Jane leaving Boston, but she’s ultimately supportive once Jane tells her she’s accepted the job. But when it comes down to maybe leaving BPD for a relationship, it’s “How do I survive without my best friend?” and running out of the room so Jane doesn’t see her cry. What a completely normal reaction to what is generally considered to be happy news.
Of course, we all know how this is going to turn out. By the end of the season, Jane realizes she can’t marry Casey and is ready to send her engagement ring to Afghanistan and close that chapter of her life for good. This could have easily been the awakening moment, right? Between realizing she couldn’t be happy as Casey’s wife and seeing how strong Maura’s reaction was to the thought of her getting married, this could have been the moment that brought everything to the surface. So naturally, this is actually the moment when Jane discovers she’s pregnant with Casey’s baby. Which is just such a baffling “fuck you, audience” move, I still can’t believe that storyline was a real thing.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the powers that be had a tendency to take the fact that Maura is the most important person to Jane a step further and milk it for dramatic effect. Because if you’re a criminal whose main goal in life is to destroy Jane Rizzoli’s life, the easiest way to do that is to endanger the life of her best friend. Clearly. Compared to the rest of the series, Rizzoli & Isles starts off pretty dark with the introduction of Charles Hoyt in the pilot. Hoyt mainly targeted couples, tying up the male victim so he could watch Hoyt torture the female victim before killing him and kidnapping her. But once he lands in Jane’s jurisdiction, he becomes obsessed with her and is determined to take her down, nearly killing her before her old partner, Korsak, stops him, ultimately sending him to prison. The series begins when they discover that Hoyt has been training an apprentice to copy his murders from his cell, causing the cycle to begin again. Over the course of the first two seasons, Hoyt tries multiple times to kill Jane by either breaking out of prison to do it himself, or training another apprentice to do the job for him. But it’s their final showdown in the season two episode, “Remember Me,” that I want to focus on here.
When investigating the death of a prison inmate, Jane discovers that Hoyt is in the infirmary dying from cancer. From what’s thought to be his deathbed, he pulls Jane into his web a couple more times: once to give her clues that sound nonsensical at first but eventually lead her to the remains of a family of four that he killed back in 2005, and once to give a few final words before he passes on. Once Jane gets that call to hear his final words to her, Maura insists on coming with her (which was probably not the smartest idea in the world, but hey, we love a supportive friend). Soon after they arrive, it becomes apparent that this was a ruse so that Hoyt–with the assistance of the prison guard he trained to be his apprentice–can kill Jane. But he’s going to make her suffer as much as possible first, by making her watch as he kills Maura first.
Agent Dean said it best when it comes to Hoyt: “It’s the ultimate way to control: kill somebody you love in front of you.” And Jane can be like “He always went after couples until me” all she wants; you can’t tell me there isn’t something symbolic in Hoyt’s last act being an attempt to murder Maura as Jane watches. It may not be what he initially planned–or maybe it was? Maybe he assumed that Maura would come with Jane when he called–but the circumstances certainly fit his M.O. And the fact that Jane’s adrenaline over seeing Maura like that completely takes over—to the point where she’s able to headbutt Hoyt’s apprentice to break free from his hold, charge after Hoyt and and kill him with the scalpel that was meant for Maura—definitely has levels to it when you think back to what Dean said about Hoyt’s M.O. It’s honestly kind of an evil genius move on the show’s part to play with Jane and Maura’s relationship in this way, and the show clearly knew it. Because it happened again towards the end of the series.
This time, the person trying to destroy Jane was Alice Sands, a former classmate from the police academy who blames Jane outshining her in the academy on the intense downward spiral her life took, drugs, prison time and all. And her revenge was elaborate. In the course of this story arc, she torched Jane’s apartment, hacked her credit cards, and shot up Korsak’s wedding reception. But I want to talk about the time she orchestrated Maura’s kidnapping, and the very distinct way Jane knew she had found the building the kidnapper kept her in. Jane and Korsak are on the last floor of the building, and there’s still absolutely no sign of Maura ever having been there. That is, until Jane gets a whiff of Maura’s perfume and immediately knows that her best friend was here.
It just feels like SUCH a deliberate choice here. By now, we’re well into the sixth season and everyone involved in this show knows the reputation Rizzoli & Isles has. And there absolutely could have been another way to do this. Maura Isles is an incredibly intelligent woman, even in crisis mode; throughout this episode, we saw her navigating her survival, testing out different tactics to take with her kidnapper. I mean, Maura figured out how to free herself from the pipe she was chained to; I feel like they could have just as easily had her leave something of hers behind—a piece of jewelry maybe—as a clue for when Jane inevitably comes looking for her. But they went for Jane recognizing her perfume in a room Maura had been long gone from. That scent had to be so faint by then. And you’re still trying to tell me they’re just friends? I’m just saying, even some of the biggest psychopaths on this show could see it; that’s why they kept taking Maura. Why couldn’t anyone else?
And then there’s the cherry on top of all of this: the series finale. Everything’s just moving along, Jane’s on her way to Quantico to be an instructor for the FBI, Maura’s getting ready for a month-long trip to Paris to finish writing her novel. Everybody is about to embark on their own new adventures. But the show just couldn’t resist throwing one last tease out there with the final scene. As Maura finishes packing for her trip to Paris, it’s clear that she’s sad about the impending distance between Jane and her; she doesn’t even want Jane to see her off at the airport because it would be too hard for her. So it’s a good thing that Jane deferred her start date in Quantico and used Maura’s miles to buy a plane ticket so they could spend a little more time together. In Paris. City of Lights. Alone. For a whole-ass month. In Paris. PARIS! Like, I knew what I was getting into when I started this whole thing; I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be watching this in real time, holding out hope that maybe something might happen by the end, only to realize that not only will the obvious never be canon, but also see them embark on something that feels suspiciously romantic as the series closes. I guess the upside to the ending is that it allows my imagination to run wild about what happened on that trip and fill in the blanks to my own satisfaction. But the fact that I have to do that when it would have been so easy for them to do it for me is exhausting.
One more point to all of this: it wasn’t just relegated to the show itself! I know I’m super late to this party and missed all of the promotional stuff as it aired, so imagine my surprise when during one of my typical fan vid rabbit holes on YouTube, I come across a promo for the second season that I honestly can’t believe wasn’t pulled straight out of the edits filling up my watch history:
This commercial is something. To recap: Jane and Maura decide to try their hand at speed dating, all the dudes that they talk to suck, and by the end of it they basically say fuck it and wind up having the perfect date with each other. Because they’re soooo straight. That was a real thing they put on TV. To promote a show they kept insisting wasn’t super gay. I just…what is life? What is anything? If the goal is to have the main focus of the show be on the friendship between Jane and Maura, I actually kind of get not wanting to dwell on outside relationships for too long. But there’s a definite line between showcasing a friendship and straight up queerbaiting, and it’s clear the powers that be weren’t too concerned about crossing it. And the thing is, I don’t think they had to go so hard in order to protect the friendship.
As I mentioned before, Rizzoli & Isles is based off of a series of books by Tess Gerritsen, and it’s fascinating to see just how much the show differs from the source material. In the books, Maura’s love life is still pretty terrible. Her ex-husband is a complete asshole, and for a decent stretch of the series, she was having a secret affair with a priest for reasons I will never fully understand. But Jane? After working with Agent Dean on the Hoyt case, Jane marries him by the third book and has their daughter by the fifth; she’s in a committed relationship for nearly the entire series (one that’s still going, by the way…book thirteen is set to be released in the summer). But while the books definitely focus more on the cases themselves than on the friendship between Jane and Maura, you still get a sense of the way they care about each other. And while I was reading the books in tandem with watching the show, I couldn’t stop wondering how the show would be if it had followed the books a little closer. I couldn’t stop wondering if Jane and Maura’s relationship would have been adversely affected if one of them had a long-term boyfriend or husband throughout the series. And you know what? I honestly don’t think it would have been.
For argument’s sake, let’s say there’s a version of this show where Jane is married to Agent Dean. Even though he’s FBI and has a sense of what Jane goes through at work, there will still always be that element of Maura being the person who gets it when it comes to work stuff, because she’s constantly working closely with Jane on the same cases. There will always be layers to their connection that won’t be in any other relationship they have, and that will always make their relationship a vital one. As firmly planted as I am in the minority against the whole Benson/Stabler thing on SVU, it does help to look at that as an example. Stabler was married from the beginning of the series, but the pivotal connection he had with Benson allowed them to know each other in a way no one else really could (which, of course, is what launched a thousand fics). Who’s to say Rizzoli & Isles couldn’t have had the same thing?
I’d go so far as to argue that we got a taste of what that could be like in season 5, when Maura dated that instructor from BCU. Remember Jack? I did not mind that he was a thing. He was a good guy, he really cared about Maura, and unlike some of her other prospects, he didn’t want to cope with his trauma by murdering her. But most importantly (you know…besides the fact that he wasn’t a serial killer), the fact that he was the boyfriend didn’t seem to interfere with Maura’s friendship with Jane. He was there from time to time, he was mentioned whenever it was necessary, but he didn’t feel intrusive on the whole dynamic in the way that, say, Casey did. It didn’t feel like the show was pushing Jack onto Maura, or onto us as an audience. And when the inevitable breakup happened, it honestly didn’t seem necessary to put Maura through that heartbreak. He wasn’t hurting anything or anyone by being there, so why not let him stick around? Jane and Maura were still each other’s person who gets it; they still understood each other in a way no one else could. There still would have been enough of a charge to launch a thousand fics without having to resort to half of the things this show has tried to pull. And yet, here we are. And here I am, five years after the show ended, having a meltdown over all the things the series could have been.
Rizzoli & Isles is such a weird treasure trove of incredibly queer moments between two women everyone keeps insisting are straight. I should be annoyed. I should hate how much effort they seemed to put into the tease. I shouldn’t love this as much as I do.
So how did it become my new go-to comfort show?
When I started watching Rizzoli & Isles, I never expected it to make me reckon with my own relationship with queer media. But I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to figure out why I fell for its queerbaiting while being fully aware that I was actively being queerbaited, and why I keep coming back to it when it’s fairly easy to find something else that actually has a payoff. I’m not sure if I have a definite answer. But I think there are a couple of things at play. And strangely, I keep coming back to my experience watching The L Word for the first time.
“How many more of these experiences are we going to have?”
It was the summer of 2009 (a few months after the series ended…seriously, I never show up to these parties on time). I had just come home from my Freshman year of college in NYC, and I needed a way to kill the next couple of months. And that way just happened to be downloading The L Word through suspicious channels that should have straight up murdered my laptop and watching it on the porch with my headphones on, the only surefire way to avoid having to swear to god I wasn’t watching porn should anyone happen to walk in on the scene. It was obvious to me back then that this show was messy, and not just because of a few choice story arcs (I have spent and will continue to spend my entire adult life being bitter about Dana Fairbanks, thank you). These women were oozing privilege, biphobia and transphobia were definitely in the air, and as the seasons went on, there was so much gratuitous fucking–plus that one Turkish oil wrestling tournament in a lesbian bar for some reason?–that I sometimes questioned if the show actually was meant for the audience the core group was supposed to represent. But I still got hooked immediately…and not just because of how Bette Porter looks in power suits.
The L Word was the first show that let me see parts of myself I had never seen on TV before. And for the longest time, it was the only show. Instead of wading through the subtext between a given pair of characters, The L Word handed me those relationships on a silver platter. That mind blowing experience of actually being able to relate to these characters carried me through so many of the show’s problems. So no matter what weird and questionable turns it ended up taking, there was always going to be a special place for it in my heart, one that makes me keep coming back to it to this day. Because where else was I going to go? It was a mentality of “I know this is flawed, but it’s all I’ve got, so I will devote my life to it” that made me latch onto The L Word back then. And maybe, on some level, that residual mentality is partly to blame for the way I’ve latched onto Rizzoli & Isles now.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing else out there now; things are slowly starting to move in the right direction when it comes to queer women on TV, especially within the last couple of years. The L Word: Generation Q is a particularly sentimental bright spot for me, bringing back some of my favorite characters of an extremely formative show and actively trying to rectify some of the more questionable parts of the original series: the representation’s improved a bit, the trans characters are treated with a respect that the original L Word’s Max never got, and holy shit, they actually remembered that Alice is a bisexual woman this season! Work in Progress is the dark comedy I desperately needed; this show is filled with LGBTQ+ characters that apparently will just never exist in The L Word’s version of the world, and while I can’t believe it took until 2019 for me to see something like this, I’m so glad it’s here. And, because there’s always got to be a period drama, Gentleman Jack is at my service to keep me well fed; how could I possibly resist a show based on the life of Anne Lister, whose coded diaries earned her the title of Britain’s first modern lesbian? I mean, there was an 1830’s version of a lesbian wedding closing out the first season; 19-year-old me watching The L Word on the front porch could never have thought to imagine that. It’s only a sampling of what’s out there, but the fact that these shows exist feels like a feast compared to the scraps of representation I was scrambling to find way back when. The thing is, that feast is actually pretty small when you look at the big picture.
According to GLAAD’s most recent Where We Are on TV report, LGBTQ+ characters made up less than ten percent of regular characters on broadcast television in the 2020-2021 season. There were 81 regular LGBTQ+ characters in scripted cable series, and 95 across streaming platforms. And within those numbers, queer men are represented more than queer women, making these slim pickings even slimmer. It’s always kind of been the joke that lesbians will watch anything that has a lesbian in it, no matter how small the part, and no matter how problematic the representation is. But when it comes down to it, it’s so true, at least in my own personal experience; SNL’s brilliant “Lesbian Period Drama” sketch last season was a full blown attack, right down to the “Sure. I mean, I’m gonna see it” that I’ve uttered VERBATIM every time something new comes out. I’ve trudged through multiple seasons of a show for one kiss; I’ve sat through more depictions of how straight men see queer women than I care to think about. It’s not really fair, but what else am I supposed to do in this sea of overwhelmingly straight representation? Who knows when the next solid queer character will grace my TV? And even when we get that solid character, there’s no guarantee that they’ll last very long…which was unfortunately the case with two of my favorite shows in the world recently.
When SVU had Kat Tamin casually come out as bisexual in the season 21 finale by asking for Rollins’ opinion about who she should swipe right on (“Gene or Gina?”), I flipped the hell out. It felt like such a huge deal, partly because they didn’t make it out to be a huge deal at all. Finally, we had exactly one (1) queer regular character on this show, eight years after BD Wong–who previously held that distinction as Dr. George Huang–left SVU as a series regular. They showed her with her girlfriend! They had a lovely New Year’s Eve together before the case of the week got in the way! She was a badass addition to the squad and really starting to come into her own! I loved her! And then all of a sudden, the higher ups decided to write her off the show entirely this season during the premiere episode.
I have no idea why they would do that. Jamie Gray Hyder doesn’t even know why they would do that; she put out a statement after the news broke, saying that the decision was above her pay grade and not what she wanted. But just as quickly as that breath of representation came, it went. It’s disappointing, it’s confusing, and it’s honestly infuriating that in 23 seasons of this show, I don’t even need one full hand to count the number of regular queer characters that have been part of it. I would love to think that there’s still hope for a little more representation in the squad. But considering how few and far between these characters have been so far, I’m not sure how much hope I can realistically have.
And then there’s Will & Grace.
If you were here for my recaps of the revival, you already know what happened with Karen Walker and how I feel about all of it. But in case you weren’t, here’s a quick rundown: even though it was mainly played for a punchline in the original series, Karen Walker was a canonically bisexual woman. After she divorced her husband in the second season of the revival, the show finally gave me what I had been screaming for for over a decade and gave Karen a girlfriend. When they introduced Nikki into the fold, this relationship had all the signs of being the healthiest one Karen had ever been in. It was so much more than I ever could have hoped for. Too bad it only lasted for one episode.
If it didn’t send me into a rage spiral every time I think about it, it would be impressive how quickly Will & Grace fucked everything up. In the very next episode, Nikki declares that she can’t date a woman who isn’t 100% gay, as if lesbians are the only queer women out there. Which makes Karen dive into butch stereotypes in order to keep her relationship going. Which leads the people she loves most to tell her she’s not a lesbian (and to be fair, that’s true! She’s not a lesbian! But the show never really could let go of the ‘90s mentality that bisexuality isn’t a real thing, could they?), and that she’s not queer, she’s just lost. And then, in the worst possible ending to this relationship, Karen pulls from the iconic playbook of Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode.” But instead of accidentally using an airport PA system to come out, she accidentally uses it to announce to everyone that she’s straight. It was a slap in the face I never expected from a show that has been a lifeline for most of my life.
This one in particular hurt to witness. Will & Grace was a queer show that 1000% should have known better than to completely erase Karen’s bisexuality over the course of three episodes. That one perfect episode that got my hopes up? Now that I know what comes directly after, there’s a part of me that wishes I never got it in the first place; I still haven’t been able to revisit it because of how that story arc wrapped. If I can’t count on a show that broke ground by putting positive gay representation on broadcast television for a total of eleven seasons to give their canoncially queer woman the same safe space afforded to their gay male characters, how exactly am I supposed to have faith that things will get better? So with Rizzoli & Isles, it’s not so much an “I know this is flawed, but it’s all I’ve got” situation as it is an “I know this is flawed, but at least I know what I’m getting into” situation. There are other things out there, but there’s not much, and no telling how long it’ll last before it disappears for one non-reason or another. And even though the series ends with them embarking on a month-long vacation in one of the most romantic cities in the world, I know that Maura and Jane will never live happily ever after in the world that was built on TNT. But I also know that it will never put me in a situation where I finally see the things I’ve been shouting at the TV to see, only to have everything go spectacularly wrong in the very next second. Sometimes, as much as it sucks to have to do it, it’s easier on my soul to take the pieces I’m given by a show and make my way over to AO3 to let that wealth of fic complete the puzzle. Sometimes, letting my imagination run wild is the better option.
Besides…it’s what I’m used to.
I came into my own queerness as a teenager in the ’00s, right before it became easier to see visibly queer women in media who also happened to be younger queer women. Teenage Me would have killed for King Princess or FLETCHER or Hayley Kiyoko to be the one to stroll in and sing a few bars and suddenly make everything fall into place; she would have killed to be able to turn on The CW at just about any given time and see some piece of herself reflected back. Instead, my big awakening came in the form of t.A.T.u.’s “All the Things She Said,” which was promptly tainted in later years, thanks to the discovery that their manager decided to rope a couple of teenagers into a gay for pay stunt and the fact that half of this duo turned out to be pretty homophobic as an adult. While I had musical icons like Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and the Indigo Girls to fall back on (I can’t even begin to tell you how Amy Ray’s Prom made me feel so seen at 16), what I really needed was someone closer to my age to show me that other kids were going through this too; instead, Katy Perry came in, turning the parts of me I was trying to figure out into a spectacle for straight dudes and making me want to avoid cherry chapstick for the rest of my life. And before I got sucked into The L Word, all I really had was pointing out all of the times Olivia and Alex felt like secret girlfriends on SVU, or cranking out some fic based on the particularly sapphic moments between Grace and Karen on Will & Grace.
Old habits die hard. I still have t.A.T.u.’s 200km/h in the Wrong Lane in fairly regular rotation, even though my relationship with that album has grown more and more conflicted as the years go by. I’m still cranking out Grace/Karen fic, because good lord, some of those moments they had together were SAPPHIC. And I still have a laser focus on all of the things that prove Alex and Olivia were secret girlfriends, matching necklaces and all. And it’s that last point that I think doomed me to fall for Rizzles from the start. I’ve spent my formative years pretty much taking what I could get from scraps of subtext and representation that was problematic at best. Overanalyzing glances and measuring the amount of personal space between two characters at any given time is an art that I’ve perfected over the years (and I know I’m not the only one). Breaking out of those patterns is extremely difficult, especially when I still have to actively search for that queer needle in the haystack. It’s apparently not something I’m going to be able to do anytime soon. And maybe that’s what makes me the perfect target for something like Rizzoli & Isles to come along and completely take over my life. Maybe it’s something I can never truly shake. And maybe that’s part of the reason why, even with all of the discourse surrounding queerbaiting, the practice of it shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon.
Did they need to go so hard on all of the things that made Jane and Maura seem like they were completely in love with each other? Absolutely not. Is Rizzoli & Isles still a great watch? Hell yes it is. Even taking all of the “gayest straight show” factors out of the equation, I think it really is everything a good crime procedural should be, and it’s completely worth the time it takes to go through all seven seasons. It just makes me wish for what could have been. Would it have really been that hard to lean just a little bit more into what was already obvious to literally everybody, until it became canon? Would it have been that hard to give us a crime show and a gay show at the same time? At the very least, someone could drop all pretenses and use Rizzoli & Isles as a stepping stone towards the real thing.
I mean, come on. It’s 2021…shouldn’t we have had at least one procedural with a pair of crime fighting wives in it by now?