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When a Kiss Is Not Just a Kiss on ‘Relativity’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Producers of ABC’s “Relativity” insist that any controversy surrounding tonight’s episode--featuring several steamy sex scenes and a lesbian kiss--wasn’t done to boost low ratings. And for one of them, at least, the show is much more personal than that.

Jan Oxenberg, who wrote the episode, is a lesbian. So forget that there have been gay characters on prime-time series before, even kisses (albeit rather tentative ones) on “Melrose Place,” “Roseanne” and in the TV movie “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story.”

For the writer, watching the scene filmed when Rhonda (played by Lisa Edelstein) kisses another woman marked a milestone and evoked tears.

“It really does mean something,” said Oxenberg, a filmmaker featured in the acclaimed documentary “The Celluloid Closet” who was brought to “Relativity” by creator Jason Katims. “It means a kind of profound acceptance.”

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The kiss actually represents a small part of the story, which focuses on how the intense bond between Isabel (Kimberly Williams) and Leo (David Conrad) makes their friends and siblings feel particularly lovelorn.

ABC has focused on that aspect of the show in its promotion, touting “the episode everyone is talking about.” The studio behind “Relativity” has also tried desperately to garner attention for the series, which will finish its first season in February and then await word on whether ABC wants to bring it back. At a press conference Thursday, ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses didn’t sound optimistic about its long-term prospects.

Yet according to Oxenberg, “Relativity” would have explored Rhonda’s life--in all its aspects--no matter how the show was performing ratings-wise.

“We didn’t do this to save the show,” she said. “We would have done this regardless.”

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Perhaps in part because of “Relativity’s” small audience by prime-time standards, the show has generated less furor than past programs that dealt with homosexuality or the protracted guessing game as to whether Ellen DeGeneres’ character will “come out” on her sitcom.

Oxenberg sees some hypocrisy in the kiss warranting much discussion at all when held up against the sex scene between Williams and Conrad.

“On one level it’s a little silly, yet given the history of television it’s a very profound message,” she said, expressing bewilderment that “a simple human kiss, that you see every day between heterosexual characters, causes a firestorm.”

While gays have won greater acceptance in prime time, networks still find themselves subject to criticism from groups who find such material inappropriate. Despite an increase in gay characters, then, few are allowed to be overtly sexual.

“Any time we get to see a romantic involvement between two gay and lesbian characters on television it is indeed still a milestone,” said Alan Klein, communications director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “Every time we see an example of that we need to applaud.”

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Of course, not everyone is applauding. Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents Television Council, which publishes the Family Guide to Prime Time Television, seeks to keep objectionable programming out of early prime-time hours and fears that increased tolerance of gays is finding its way into 8 p.m. shows.

“I still think advertisers and the public are worried about that,” he said. “Is this going to be acceptable [in those hours] sooner or later? That’s something that we’d want to question and definitely want to keep out of there.”

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One watershed event in terms of depicting gays on TV occurred on another show from “Relativity” producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, “thirtysomething.” That 1989 scene showed two gay men in bed together and wound up costing ABC about $1 million in lost advertising revenue.

Many advertisers are still reluctant to support shows that provoke any sort of controversy, since those opposing gay rights have in the past threatened sponsor boycotts.

The producers and network did wrestle over how far to push this episode, both in terms of the sex between Leo and Isabel and the kiss (producers were told the women could kiss once, but not again). ABC gave the episode a TV-14 rating, warning parents that it may not be suitable for children under 14.

David Westin, ABC Television Network president, indicated that some advertisers pulled out but said others replaced them. Westin doesn’t anticipate that the network will suffer financially this week--partly due to modest ad rates based on the show’s relatively small audience. The show was watched by 7.7 million people last week, ranking 83rd out of 86 prime-time shows on the four major networks.

Even with the editing done, Oxenberg commended ABC for standing behind the producers. “Basically, in both instances we were able to come to a place aesthetically that the network felt good about and we felt didn’t compromise what we were trying to do,” she said.

Oxenberg’s own memories of television are painful, including the moment in which Shirley MacLaine’s character commits suicide after confronting lesbian feelings in the 1962 movie “The Children’s Hour.”

“Kissing is a whole lot better than suicide. That I have a chance to replace those ugly images with the image of a kiss is a dream come true,” she said.

* “Relativity” airs at 10 tonight on ABC (Channel 7).

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