Let’s be frank: No one is tuning into E! for intellectual television. As a sort of unofficial sister station to Bravo, the entertainment cable network survives on ridiculous reality TV based on the lives of D-list celebrities or esoteric businesses supposedly representing glamour and wealth, whether it be tanning salons or cycle houses. Of course, the Kardashian’s namesake show on E! is what has helped the klan ascend to A-list status, but few of the network’s other programs—many of which list professional fame whore Ryan Seacrest as executive producer—have catapulted its stars to the pages of Vogue and catwalks of Paris.
Today, E! revealed an extended trailer (above) for its upcoming reality show What Happens at the Abbey and it appears the show’s goal is hock a thick loogie on the face of gay culture. For those unfamiliar, The Abbey, located in the heart of West Hollywood, is one of the country’s most famous and historic gay bars. It might actually be the heart of West Hollywood, with its loud beats pulsing through the bar’s adjacent blocks every night of the week. Originally opened as just a coffee shop in 1991, The Abbey soon expanded into a nightclub—and it hasn’t quit expanding since. The bar’s owner recently extended his reign over West Hollywood’s nightlife by buying out the club next door and re-opening it as the Abbey’s little brother bar.
As strange as it may sound, just as the Guinness Storehouse is mecca for the Irish, The Abbey is a sort of gay mecca and people within the LGBTQ community come from all over the world to visit. A TMZ tour bus even makes a pit stop outside so lookie loos from the Bible Belt can catch a glimpse of nearly naked go-gos swaying for singles. It’s the sort of place bachelorettes try to book for their last night of singledom and where celebrities like Lady Gaga, Carmen Electra and Rumer Willis randomly pop in for a night cap. It’s a historic venue that owns massive real estate on a prime street in one of Los Angeles’s priciest neighborhoods—and because of its success, the bar has become a massive symbol of LGBT pride.
Based on the trailer for What Happens at the Abbey, though, the show can’t be bothered with the bar’s history—or gay pride, for that matter. Instead, the cast takes part in typical self-aggrandizing antics: people hook up, people get drunk, people get naked. While some of the cast are gay, nothing about the premise appears to represent the gay experience. Instead, What Happens at the Abbey looks like a serial adaptation of #WhiteGirlWasted. “The Abbey is absolutely a soap opera,” says one. “Marissa is gorgeous. Petite, got big boobs. I might take her home and do bad things to her” says another. In one teased plot line, a gay man agrees to impregnate his lesbian best friend and then decides to tell his (assumed) father about it at—where do you think?—The Abbey, at what looks like nine in the morning. Cut to a scene of a cast member crying at the airport with her mom for absolutely no reason. These antics go on and on; you get the point.
As I mentioned, nobody watches E! for a history lesson or high-brow character studies. They watch it for background noise, to zone out or to feel better about themselves. But with What Happens at the Abbey, E! is handing the bar’s main patrons an insult and threatens to ruin its legitimacy altogether.
Before the riots set off the gay rights movement in the summer of 1969, underground gay bars were some of the only spaces gay men and women, drag queens, bisexuals and transgender people could openly meet. That’s because during the much-forgotten Lavendar Scare of the 1950s, law enforcement would track down, entrap, fine and jail gay people simply for being homosexual. During that time, gay bars became sanctuaries—the original safe space. They were church. And it was one such police raid at a New York City gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in 1969, when drag queens finally stood up and fought back, that set off the decades-long gay rights movement still playing out today.
By supplanting the historical importance of gay bars—and of one as symbolic as West Hollywood’s Abbey—with the superficial narratives of whiny, ripped and otherwise pedestrian blowhards who look like stand-ins for the Baywatch reboot, E!’s latest reality show is puking Fireball on the feet of the gay community. Using tanning salons, gyms, interior decorating firms or restaurants as the backdrop for scripted “drama” is passable because the storylines that take place there say nothing of those establishments—or those communities. But by filming a “soap opera” with a largely white cast that’s only interested in bulking, boozing and banging in a literal landmark to equality, you are normalizing the history of LGBT people to the point of erasure. (I can’t help but question why the Abbey’s owner would greenlight the show in the first place, but there must have been a lot of zeroes in the paycheck.) When a show called What Happens at the Abbey shows fails to show what really happens at the Abbey—gay people celebrating life and their freedoms—it fails to offer anyting useful to society. At least the Kardashians brought back big booties.