Despite the large amount of gay characters on TV and film nowadays, as a gay man I find it difficult to relate to many of them. Often the characters exist simply to round out a “diverse” cast of stereotypical individuals. If the characters are men then they’re usually hyper-effeminate. Or they go through relationships every episode, full of inaccessible passion that burns out quickly. It’s very interesting, then, that one of the best depictions of a gay relationship in the media is in a surreal horror-comedy podcast that came out of nowhere and has taken iTunes by storm, Welcome to Night Vale.
Over the past year, the simultaneously funny and genuinely creepy Welcome to Night Vale has battled with This American Life for the top spot on iTune’s podcast ratings. It’s a twice monthly serialized podcast about a strange town where strange is actually the norm exploded in popularity thanks to social media websites such as Tumblr and Facebook. Created, written, and produced by Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor, Welcome to Night Vale features the vocal talent of Cecil Baldwin as the main broadcaster Cecil Palmer.
With occasional guest voices and writers, Night Vale’s tone changes from absurd to thoughtful to sweet to terrifying (often in just a few minutes). From a five-headed dragon running for mayor to a floating cat that lives in the men’s bathroom of the radio station, Night Vale features an assembly of characters with individual plots interwoven with the strange events that take place.
The main plot of Night Vale is told primarily through the eyes of Cecil as though read for an NPR broadcast. Throughout the broadcasts are various advertisements that reflect current events in a very subtle but tongue-in-cheek way as when the local Night Vale chapter of the NRA puts out bumper stickers with the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, it’s impossible to be killed by a gun, we are all invincible to bullets and it’s a miracle!” A character’s racist choice of clothing is constantly criticized and reflective of the current disapproval of culturally appropriated Halloween costumes, and the Vague Yet Menacing Government controls all aspects of Night Vale life.
Among the various plot points and ludicrous events that occur, the relationship between Cecil and Carlos is the most prominent, especially among fans. Carlos, a scientist who moves to Night Vale to study the town, begins dating Cecil a year after his arrival and despite the mountains of fan art and fan fiction depicting the two, their relationship is actually seldom mentioned.
Compared to TV shows and movies like Modern Family and Glee, where such characters are merely stereotypical token gays and used primarily for drama, Carlos and Cecil’s relationship is very healthy. They cook for each other, stargaze on the back of Carlos’ hybrid car, and share a quick kiss at the end of dates. As they grow closer, Cecil finds traits and habits of Carlos that are irritating but such discoveries are natural as a relationship progresses. These habits are never blown out of proportion or sensationalized unnecessarily, and any problems that arise are worked through. They do not break up constantly only to get back together by the next episode and Cecil’s descriptions of Carlos’ “perfect” hair and jaw gradually turn into praise of his reliability. It’s very refreshing to see a relationship that develops over a period of time with the milestones of a typical romance.
Their relationship is far from perfect (“perfect” would be impossible to achieve in a town such as Night Vale) but they are at least not caricatures of a gay couple. And as more people begin listening to this unusual and fascinating podcast, it is important to have models of the gay experience that are true to life.