Webster's Dictionary defines "cliché" as "an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect."
Well, we're already off to a bad start, as I've begun this article about clichés with the oldest cliché in the book. Aaarg! There's another cliché! Maybe instead of avoiding the cliché, we can somehow reinvent the wheel. (Clich´ number three, for those counting.) What if we take a cliché and put it in a modern context? Might it become relevant in some new way?
This was the concept I had in mind when creating Husbands, a newlywed sitcom that I co-wrote with TV goddess Jane Espenson. We wanted to take an ultramodern topic (marriage equality) and frame it in a universe of sitcom tropes. After all, if an idea is overused to the point of losing all meaning, it must've had merit at some point. Why else was it so overused in the first place?
Picture it: Vegas. Young lovers get drunk. They wake up married. This is the premise of Husbands. Today, if a man and a woman woke up in this scenario, they'd just get an annulment, à la Britney. Problem solved. But in the case of Cheeks and Brady, (the couple at the center of Husbands), their matrimonial disaster only reveals the ways in which they are anything but equal, regardless of legal rights. While Britney's quickie vows were just a silly oopsie, a same-sex what-did-I-do wedding becomes fuel for that whole "sanctity of marriage" thing. In this context the Vegas-wedding cliché highlights the largely undiscussed idea that legal equality, while necessary, is not social equality. An old premise gives way to new insight.
Keeping in this style, Husbands also shamelessly embraces stereotypes in order to challenge the notion that stereotypes are intrinsically bad. By starting with the familiar (think of Cheeks and Brady as Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, except getting it on), we let the audience comfortably settle into the expected. Flamboyant Cheeks buys a tiny dog. Brady objects, afraid that adopting stereotypes will cause (eep!) public judgement. Shredding Brady's argument, Cheeks uses intelligence to establish dominance. Suddenly, we see that being feminine in a masculine-obsessed world is precisely how Cheeks became so thick-skinned and self-realized. Meanwhile, being 6-foot-4 and manly, Brady has never dealt with ridicule or bullying. As a result... well, he's kind of a pansy. Brady's got muscles, but Cheeks has strength. Using the stereotype of a feminine gay man, we were able to present a radical concept.
When Husbands made its recent foray into the world of comic books, we continued asking questions about the relevance of gender roles in the 21st century by placing our couple in various archetypal relationships and using, you know, lots of witty banter and sexy fun. Natch. What happens when the knight in shining armor comes to the rescue of a man? Does being rescued make you any less of a man? Let's imagine that Sherlock and Watson are gay (because, hello, they totally are) and living in an accepting society. What, then, becomes the obstacle to their love? In a James Bond scenario, who's Bond? Who's "the girl"? Does it have to be strictly defined, or can it be kind of gray?
We humans are able to contemplate these abstract ideas (and invent bad-ass foods like tacos and crème brûlée) because we are the only earthly beings with such a sophisticated level of consciousness. Except for maybe dolphins. They seem to know something we don't. Unfortunately, this unique ability also results in the construction of cognitive illusions, illusions that are no more real than a ban on wearing white after Labor Day. (Which, b-t-dubbs, went out the window years ago, so it's once again safe to wear your adorable all-white Christmas jumpsuit.)
Husbands, both as a sitcom and as a comic book, embraces clichés, stereotypes and tropes to make a point: Most old ideas are only as meaningless or as negative as their context. Few of these notions are intrinsically detrimental, as the judgements we attach to them exist only in our minds. See, it's the ratio of "expected" to "unexpected" that gives us dimensionality and makes each one of us unique. Like a snowflake! Then again, snowflakes aren't all that unique. (Science lied to you.)
While there is a seemingly infinite variety of crystal structures that could form a snowflake, there are many more snowflakes than possible crystal combinations. In short, millions of snowflakes are all the same. So, we really are like snowflakes! One in a million... among hundreds of millions. The cliché remains the same, but the context gives it an entirely new meaning. Well, whadaya know? It seems that there's always a modern way to fashion an old hat.