The (Mis)Education of AIDS Storylines on TV Shows: “Brothers” 1985
before the advent of social media and digital organizing, network television played an integral role in raising awareness about social issues. this often resulted in awful “very special” episodes of popular sitcoms, “ripped from the headlines” movies of the week, or “must watch” afterschool specials. and as an adolescent, my moral compass and ideals about AIDS were shaped in part by my consumption of these shows. so for the next couple of weeks, I will unpack and revisit some of these shows with a historic lens. I will examine their impact and if their messaging holds up decades later.
“brothers” premiered as cable’s first weekly sitcom on showtime on july 13, 1984. on the surface, the premise of “brothers,” three italian brothers from south philly who couldn’t be any more different from each other was a typical sitcom trope. however, what separated the show from other sitcoms of the time, was that the youngest brother, cliff, was gay and had an extremely flamboyant gay best friend named donald.
“brothers” wasn’t the first sitcom to feature a gay character. “the corner bar,” a short-lived 1972 sitcom on ABC holds that distinction. what made “brothers” trailblazing show was it was the first to have both lead and secondary gay characters. and in 1984, this was pretty revolutionary during a time when anything gay was equated to AIDS, death, and perversion.
the first season of primarily centered around cliff’s older brothers – lou, a macho and airheaded construction worker, and joe, a former professional football player who owns a restaurant – struggle with working through their homophobia to support cliff. best friend and confidant serves a guide for cliff as he learns to navigate gay life.
a nightlight of the series is a season two episode entitled, “the stranger.” joe learns that his former football teammate, bubba portrayed by late great james avery of “the fresh prince of bel-air” fame), has AIDS. joe is stunned by the news while cliff is polarised by the fear that AIDS is inching closer into his life.
“the stranger” premiered on october 23, 1985, just a few weeks after the death of rock hudson. by this time, HIV infections tripled from the year before and claimed over 8,000 lives. what made the episode especially powerful is that it not only directly addresses the hysteria and homophobia fueled by misinformation from news media outlets. but it also names the fear that a man loving another man equals death.
the final scene of the episode features a vulnerable bubba sharing how he is afraid to return home to his family because of the stigma he has experienced. joe then pleas with him to not give up – and live. pleas to survive and hope were sometimes the only things a friend could offer during a time when there was no cure or treatment insight.
“brothers” is seldom ever mentioned whenever people talk or write about the history of AIDS and/or queer representation on TV. remarkably, this episode holds up pretty well all these years later.
“brothers” was ahead of their time. in many ways, it was the precursor to “will & grace” and in its short time, still managed to address AIDS, HIV stigma, and the loneliness and fear it creates in our communities