“Digging Deeper” is a closer look at notable TV moments from the past four decades.
There’s no evidence the “Kate & Allie” episode “Landlady” stirred any controversy when CBS aired it 25 years ago tonight, even though it addresses issues – homophobia, gay relationships, the definition of family – that are as provocative now as they were then.
Nexis and Google searches don’t turn up any old headlines about nervous network affiliates refusing to air “Landlady” or sponsors dropping out before the episode’s broadcast or religious groups threatening boycotts.
Maybe that was the point.
Perhaps the “Kate & Allie” producers conceived “Landlady” not as mechanism to court publicity or goose ratings, but as a tool to educate viewers – to help them develop a deeper appreciation for the everyday challenges facing gay men and lesbians.
If, indeed, this was the producers’ goal, they succeeded.
“Landlady” has divorced mothers and roommates Kate McCardle and Allie Lowell (Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin) facing a big rent increase when the woman who owns their Greenwich Village apartment, Janet Franklin (guest star Gloria Cromwell), discovers they are two families sharing a single-family dwelling.
Unable to afford the rent hike – and unable to find another affordable apartment in Manhattan – Kate and Allie decide to lie to Janet, telling her they’re a lesbian couple – and therefore, one family.
Then Janet, who appears to be in her early 60s, comes out to Kate and Allie, introducing them to her lover of eight years – sweet, cardigan-clad grandmother Miriam Goodman (Chevi Colton).
Janet and Miriam, under the impression Kate and Allie are fresh from the closet, try to counsel them through the coming-out process, even arranging a dance in their honor at the local gay community center.
One lie leads to another, and Kate and Allie grow increasingly guilty about deceiving their new friends, but they conclude they have no other choice.
On the night of the dance, Janet and Miriam drop by the apartment to pick up “the girls,” as Janet has come to refer to Kate and Allie. When Janet accidentally overhears a conversation between them and discovers they’re only pretending to be gay, she’s hurt and angry.
“I am so tired of people who think they have the right to condescend to us – just because we’re different from them,” Janet says.
“Wait a minute,” Kate responds. “You were ready to penalize us $648 a month just because we’re different from you.”
JANET: This apartment is a one-family dwelling!
KATE: Sure, as long as you get to say what a family is.
JANET: Everybody knows what a family is.
KATE: I’m not so sure. A lot of people wouldn’t consider a gay couple a family, but you do. And now, so do we.
MIRIAM (gazing sympathetically at Kate and Allie): Oh Janet.
ALLIE: A family is anybody who wants to share their lives together.
KATE: Right – raise their kids together, put up with each other’s craziness. …
ALLIE: It’s love that defines a family and it could be any kind of love – your kind, our kind, theirs.
KATE: Who’s to say which kind of family is best? You above all people ought to know that.
Janet, having been gently forced to confront her hypocrisy, relents. She still wants Kate and Allie to accompany her and Miriam to the dance.
Allie reminds Janet that she and Kate aren’t really gay. “I won’t tell anybody if you don’t,” a smiling Janet responds.
The resolution may be a little pat, but it doesn’t undermine the brilliance of “Landlady” and the sly way it forces viewers to consider what life in the closet must be like.
As Steven Capsuto writes in his 2000 book “Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television:
The script turns around situations that many closeted people face every day to avoid losing a job or a home: Kate and Allie have to concoct lie after lie, avoid talking about boyfriends and ex-spouses, and remember what lies they have already told.
It’s clear the “Kate & Allie” producers went out of their way to present Janet and Miriam in a positive light: the couple is depicted as happy, well-adjusted and free of angst.
When Miriam tells Kate and Allie she hasn’t seen her grandson Andrew in more than a year, the viewer might expect to find out it’s because the boy’s parents don’t understand Grandma’s lesbianism. Instead, Miriam explains her son-in-law’s job was transferred to Frankfurt.
“Landlady” is also distinguished by the realistic manner in which Kate and Allie deal with their feelings and attitudes toward gay people.
Allie, a suburban Connecticut housewife before her divorce, is visibly nervous around Janet and Miriam. As soon as they depart after inviting Kate and Allie to the dance, Allie tells her roommate, “I don’t care if we have to live on skid row, I am not going to a gay dance!”
Free-spirited Kate is depicted as being much more casual about homosexuality. When Allie asks what she should do if “some woman asks me to dance,” Kate tells her, “What if some man asks you to dance? You either say no or you dance.”
Then, on the night of the big event, when it appears Allie isn’t going to budge from her rocking chair, Kate’s nerves are revealed. “I can’t go without you!” she tells Allie. “What if some woman asks me to dance?”
The episode’s final scene depicts the two couples happily dancing at the gay dance. (A straight couple and a gay male couple can also be seen, although the two men are the least visible.)
“Landlady” leaves open the possibility Janet and Miriam could become recurring characters, but only Miriam appears on the show again, popping up in a 1987 episode about Allie’s surprise birthday party.
The characters may have proven fleeting and “Landlady” may not have drawn much attention when in 1984, but no matter.
Kate and Allie and Janet and Miriam still have something to teach us, and as long as we have reruns, their lessons on love and family will endure.
From the Pages of TV Guide
Also airing Oct. 15, 1984:
8 PM ABC WORLD’S GREATEST MYSTERIES
George C. Scott and Arthur C. Clarke (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) are the hosts for a look at some mysteries. Segments on near-death experiences; a grandmother’s premonition of her granddaughter’s fatal accident; and poltergeists. (60 min.)
8 PM CBS SCARECROW AND MRS. KING
Amanda’s life is in jeopardy when a bitter ex-spy threatens to name names in an expose on security agencies’ use of amateur spies. Arlene Francis appears as a TV talk-show hostess. Amanda: Kate Jackson. (60 min.)
Douglas Harriman … Steve Eastin
Barney Sleece … Michael DeLano
Roland Brooks … Kaz Garas
8 PM NBC TV’S BLOOPERS & PRACTICAL JOKES
Scheduled: Practical jokes on singer Cyndi Lauper, who faces a difficult baby-sitting job; and Joan Van Ark, who must evaluate a play Ted Shackelford wants to invest in. Also: bloopers by the “Family Ties” cast, with commentary by Michael Gross; David Letterman’s visit to a novelty-item exhibition; sports clips with Fred Roggin; silly cinemas; toy commercials. (60 min.)
9 PM ABC NFL FOOTBALL
Green Bay at Denver. (Live)
9:30 CBS NEWHART
In the third-season opener, Dick (Bob Newhart) may not survive a guilty conscience after he unloads Kirk’s face on a gullible buyer (Ray Walston), and then learns that a TV producer (new regular Peter Scolari) is preparing a grossly isleading promo for his new show. Hinton: Ford Rainey.
9 PM NBC V: THE FINAL BATTLE (CC) – Science Fiction
Part 2. The rebels stage a daring rescue at the aliens’ security headquarters and also seek to sabotage their plan to siphon Earth’s water into their giant spaceships. (Repeat; 2 hrs.)
Mike Donovan … Marc Singer
Julie … Faye Grant
Ham Tyler … Michael Ironside
Robin … Blair Tefkin
Diana … Jane Badler
Martin … Frank Ashmore
[Concludes Friday evening.]
10 PM CBS CAGNEY & LACEY – Crime Drama
The detectives begin a third season as they investigate a child-molestation charge, but the victim’s father refuses to let his 7-year-old daughter testify. Meanwhile, Petrie files a civilian complaint against two fellow officers who mistook him for a thief. Cagney: Sharon Gless. Lacey: Tyne Daly. (60 min.)
Jeremy Mitchell … John Reilly
Carrie Mitchell … Natalie Gregory
Rhonda Gallegos … Rose Portillo
Traeger … Christopher Rydell