responsible tv

The Commendable Way Brothers & Sisters Handled Saul’s AIDS Story

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We’ve seen HIV and AIDS on television before. On The Real World and Family Guy. But it was the season finale of ABC’s Brothers & Sisters that took it in a whole new direction: The Olds. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Often discussed — on MTV, by health advocates — as something that young people having lots of sex need to concern themselves with, HIV’s risk to seniors is often ignored. On B&S, Ron Rifkin’s character Saul learns that a former lover has been living with HIV for two decades, and it inspires him (after some convincing from his gay nephew and partner) to get a test. He gets the results, and tells his family he’s negative; we learn in the end that’s not the case.

It’s a great set up to more drama to come next season (renewed for Season 5!), but it stands alone as a remarkable moment in television. (We’ve pieced together the relevant parts from the storyline; our apologies for the sometimes choppy stream.)

Unlike most shows with senior characters, Brothers & Sisters has regularly addressed the sex lives of its older characters as serious things, not punchlines; Sally Fields’ love interests get as much play as anybody else’s. And Saul’s coming out as a gay man earlier in the series was as much a story as Dave Annable’s character as an Iraqi war vet.

But rarely do television audiences get to see septuagenarians struggle with STDs, let alone life threatening ones. Except here, the show’s producers and writers went there, and set themselves up not just for Saul to have a scare, but to have to live with a disease that killed off so many gay men just a few decades ago. It didn’t come off as a cheap ploy or a demeaning characterization of “the gay lifestyle.” It was a reality so many gay men have dealt with, particularly the ones that survived the 80s AIDS crisis.

Well done.